People with disabilities comprise a heterogeneous group of people, in terms of age, type of disability, and the conditions, which led to acquiring a disability in addition to other demographic factors such as gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. A person may have been born with a disability or may acquire it later in life through an accident or medical condition. Some people may have multiple disabilities. Many disabling conditions become stable after their acquisition, while others are progressive and will lead to more functional limitations over time.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a person with a disability as: 

  • A person with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; or
  • A person with a record of such a physical or mental impairment; or
  • A person who is regarded as having such impairment.

While there are numerous ways to categorize or define various disabilities, they generally include physical disabilities such as health and sensory conditions that meet the criteria above, and mental impairments, which include cognitive and psychiatric disabilities.

People with physical disabilities may use a wheelchair, cane, or crutches, or have limited mobility in terms of distance. A physical disability may also lead to limitations in use of one's upper extremities. A physical disability may be caused by an accident, such as in the case of a spinal cord injury or amputation, or through a disease such as multiple sclerosis. 


People with sensory disabilities include those with vision and hearing impairments. These conditions may include a partial or total loss of vision or hearing. People whose vision is correctable to be within normal range with glasses are not considered to have a disability. Again, vision and hearing impairments may be present at birth or may be acquired later in life through an accident or illness.


People with mental or cognitive impairments include those with developmental disabilities, including those who were historically defined as mentally retarded, people with autism, people with psychiatric disabilities, and/or people with learning disabilities who, by definition, have average or above intelligence, and have a processing deficit.


Other disabilities may include speech impairments such as stuttering or severe disfigurement in which case people are regarded as having a disability although their disfigurement may not pose any functional limitations.


Being ready for a disaster is a part of maintaining your independence. Although you may not know when a disaster will strike, if you are prepared ahead of time, you will be better able to cope with the disaster and recover from it more quickly. When a disaster occurs, the first priority of disaster relief organizations and government agencies is to provide basic needs of food, water, and safe shelter to everyone who needs them. Your personal needs, such as replacing medications and/or adaptive equipment, restoring electricity for equipment dependent upon power, and restoring your regular ways of support for daily living activities may not happen right away.  It is important for everyone to be prepared to meet his or her own basic needs by storing food and water for a minimum of three days or more. You should also be ready to meet needs specific to your disability by storing sufficient oxygen, medications, battery power, etc., for at least seven days after a disaster.


Knowing about disaster threats and their aftermath and being prepared are critical for taking care of yourself after a disaster.


The best way to cope with a disaster is to learn about the challenges you might face if you could not use your home, office, and personal belongings. You can meet your basic personal needs by preparing beforehand. You also may have to deal with a service animal that is unable to work or is frightened, or pets that need care and assistance.


Specific Information for People With Disabilities in the Event of a Power Outage.

  • If you use a battery-operated wheelchair, life-support system, or other power-dependent equipment, call your power company before rolling blackouts happen. Many utility companies keep a list and map of the locations of power-dependent customers in case of an emergency. Ask them what alternatives are available in your area. Contact the customer service department of your local utility companies to learn if this service is available in your community.
  • If you use a motorized wheelchair or scooter, have an extra battery. A car battery also can be used with a wheelchair but will not last as long as a wheelchair’s deep-cycle battery. If available, store a lightweight manual wheelchair for backup.
  • If you are Blind or have a visual disability, store a talking or Braille clock or large-print timepiece with extra batteries.
  • If you are Deaf or have a hearing loss, consider getting a small portable battery-operated television set. Emergency broadcasts may give information in American Sign Language (ASL) or open captioning.

Assisting People With Disabilities In A Disaster

People with disabilities who are self-sufficient under normal circumstances may have to rely on the help of others in a disaster.

Provide Assistance

Do You Know Someone With A Disability?

  • People with disabilities often need more time than others to make necessary preparations in an emergency.
  • The needs of older people often are similar to those of persons with disabilities.
  • Because disaster warnings are often given by audible means such as sirens and radio announcements, people who are deaf or hard of hearing may not receive early disaster warnings and emergency instructions. Be their source of emergency information as it comes over the radio or television.
  • Some people who are blind or visually impaired, especially older people, may be extremely reluctant to leave familiar surroundings when the request for evacuation comes from a stranger.
  • A guide dog could become confused or disoriented in a disaster. People who are blind or partially sighted may have to depend on others to lead them, as well as their dog, to safety during a disaster.
  • In most states, guide dogs will be allowed to stay in emergency shelters with owners. Check with your local emergency management officials for more information.
  • People with impaired mobility are often concerned about being dropped when being lifted or carried. Find out the proper way to transfer or move someone in a wheelchair and what exit routs from buildings are best.
  • Some people with mental retardation may be unable to understand the emergency and could become disoriented or confused about the proper way to react.
  • Many respiratory illnesses can be aggravated by stress. In an emergency, oxygen and respiratory equipment may not be readily available.
  • People with epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and other conditions often have very individualized medication regime's that cannot be interrupted without serious consequences. Some may be unable to communicate this information in an emergency.

Be ready to offer assistance if disaster strikes:
If a disaster warning is issued, check with neighbors or coworkers who are disabled. Offer assistance whenever possible.


Prepare an emergency plan.
Work with neighbors who are disabled to prepare an emergency response plan. Identify how you will contact each other and what action will be taken.



Be able to assist if an evacuation order is issued.
Provide physical assistance in leaving the home/office and transferring to a vehicle.

Provide transportation to a shelter. This may require a specialized vehicle designed to carry a wheelchair or other mobility equipment.


Self-Help Networks
Self-help networks is arrangements of people who agree to assist an individual with a disability in an emergency. Discuss with the relative, friend or co-worker who has a disability what assistance he or she may need. Urge the person to keep a disaster supplies kit and suggest that you keep an extra copy of the list of special items such as medicines or special equipment that the person has prepared. Talk with the person about how to inform him or her of an oncoming disaster and see about getting a key to the person's house so you can provided assistance without delay.


Adapted from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)