The past year has given us a stark reminder of how important it is to be prepared for the unexpected. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria have impacted the lives of millions. In Puerto Rico, 3,000 people died. People have faced sudden evacuations and homes have been damaged, or destroyed. As I write, we have a new hurricane potentially threatening to make landfall on the East coast.
For people with disabilities, a crisis may pose a whole additional set of challenges. How do they communicate with emergency responders and how do they maintain access to their assistive technology? What happens if a device is damaged or destroyed? How do you get it replaced?
For users of AAC, the loss of their communication device may leave them voiceless. In 2018, the AT3 Center launched a campaign to raise funds and find donations of equipment to replace AAC devices lost due to the storms. But software is at least as important as hardware.
There are some emergency planning steps that can be especially important to those who depend on AAC.
- Create a support network. Make sure that these people are aware of your location and AAC needs. Keep their contact information sealed in water tight container in your Go Bag.
- Contact your city or county government’s emergency management office. Many local offices keep lists of people with disabilities so they can be helped quickly in a sudden emergency. Make sure they know about your communication needs.
- Keep photocopies of any paperwork pertaining to the ownership of the device and the warranty. And save these documents to the Cloud as well. If you have medications, keep copies of your scripts and of course, keep copies of your insurance cards!
- How is your device backed up? Imagine that you backup your vocabulary file to your home computer, only to have that destroyed by a flood. Consider using a cloud-based service, such as DropBox. That way you will be able to maintain your customization even if your speech generating device needs to be replaced! Back it up to the Cloud!!
- Keep a copy of your vocabulary file on a flash drive and keep this in your Grab and Go bag. If you need to reset your device while in a shelter, your vocabulary is right there with you
- What else should be included in your Go Bag? The Institute on Disabilities has several free webinars on emergency preparedness for people with disabilities. There is also a webinar for emergency responders. The website also contains the link to the My Emergency Readiness Plan-PA. This is an interactive form designed to help people with disabilities and their families to create personal plans to prepare for emergencies.http://disabilities.temple.edu/programs/eprep/
- Make sure that you charge your equipment prior to a possible loss of power. Depending upon the device type, consider keeping an extra, fully charged, hot swappable battery in your Go bag, as well as an extra charger. Consider having a back up battery power bank and extra charging cables. Keep your device running longer! You could even get a solar-powered charger, such as the Sun Jack. Keep it in you Go bag.
- Create a full low tech backup of your vocabulary set. You can do this by taking screenshots of the “pages” on your speech generating device. The pages of this backup book can be laminated and placed in a binder. This can be used if you are forced to evacuate to a shelter for several days. This way, the AAC user can take advantage of their prior device knowledge (icon location, field size, etc…) when depending upon a low tech substitute.
You can download and print emergency communication 4 ALL letter and word communication aids from the Institute on Disabilities. These contain text and picture symbols. There is also an alphabet board to allow the user to spell out messages. A section with personal information can be filled out in advance, and the board can be kept with an emergency kit, or Go Bag.
- Consider getting your benefits electronically. Sign up for direct deposit. Checks can get stolen, and an emergency may disrupt mail service for days, if not weeks.
- What if you have a service dog? Your emergency kit should include extra dog food, collar and leash, copies of veterinary records, and other supplies. Authorities should not attempt to separate you from you service dog, so make sure you have laminated copies of your records on hand in you Go Bag.
A bit preparation can go a long ways towards ensuring that communication is still possible, even under the most difficult of circumstances. Communication needs to happen everywhere.