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How to be Prepared & Safe in an Emergency

By Judy Loseff Lavin, M.S.W.
Author of Special Kids Need Special Parents

After the events of September 11, parents and kids across the U.S. are more concerned about their personal safety than ever before. For parents and children coping with special challenges, these feelings are even more intense.

Vivid memories of news accounts reporting workers with disabilities trapped in the World Trade Center stairwells continue to haunt parents and children who are coping with special needs on a daily basis. Those with special needs, particularly children who can’t understand what’s happening or move expediently to evacuate a building, feel even more vulnerable in a crisis.

More than 20 million families (nearly one in three) in the U.S. have at least one child with a disability, making it crucial for people to understand what can be done to help those who may be less able to react when disaster strikes. Here's how you can help.

Advance Preparation

  • Call your 911 Command Center and make sure they know where the person with a disability is located in a building. For example, the southeast corner room on the fifth floor. Tell the building manager where the person is.

  • Work with others to develop a buddy system and an escape plan. People with extra challenges usually need more time and practice to prepare for emergencies.

  • Encourage those with special needs to keep supplies with them at all times. These should include a pocket or key chain flashlight to light their way or send SOS signals.

  • Find out how to move someone in a wheelchair so as not to drop him or her.

  • Set up a self-help network of people ready to offer assistance in an emergency.

During an Emergency

  • Realize that children and adults with disabilities will most likely be in a heightened state of anxiety. Try to reassure them that they are not alone and that you’re going to follow the escape plan they practiced.

  • Act as a source of emergency information for the deaf and hard of hearing who cannot decipher audible emergency alerts.

  • Lead the individual to stairwells, not elevators. Stairwells are made of concrete and steel and there’s at least two hours before a fire spreads to them. Also, firemen always use stairwells, instead of elevators. This way, fireman and other rescuers can get to the person as they climb up to locate people.

Joan Gross, Ed.D, director of Keshet Day School, a school for children with special needs in Northbrook, IL, says that “the mammoth loss on September 11 reactivated special parents' grief over their loss of the ‘perfect’ child. These parents came face-to- face with the reality of their own struggles of trying to keep their defenseless youngsters safe. It has led to increased anxiety.”

Coping in a Crisis
How do you help such parents feel more secure and how can parents help professionals when in a crisis? Gross gives the following tips on this subject:

  • The person in charge has to contain the anxiety for the system. They must stay calm.

  • Educators have to put themselves in the shoes of the parents and try to figure out where the parent is. “I give parents permission to do whatever it is they need to do to get back on an even keel,” Gross said. “They can emote or hang out in school with their child, take their child home or cry, but they can’t be destructive.”

  • At Keshet, children are not allowed to go outdoors in an emergency and parents can help by being on time when they pick up their children from school.

  • Parents should also refrain from asking numerous questions in the middle of a crisis. Be conscious that everyone is trying to deal with the situation and keep people safe.

To further help individuals with disabilities stay safe, contact your legislators as well as local, state and federal officials for inclusion of those with extra challenges in legislation concerning disaster evacuation plans.

Judith Lavin, M.S.W., author of Special Kids Need Special Parents, and a former journalist with the Chicago Sun-Times, recognized the need for an easy-to-read resource for physically and emotionally exhausted parents like herself, as well as their families, teachers, doctors and others who work with them. Lavin speaks to numerous organizations and parent groups around the nation, giving them inspiration and hope.

Lavin’s work has been featured in numerous publications such as the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, Newsday, Washington Parent and Chicago Parent. In addition, she has appeared  on radio and TV news and talk shows around the U.S., including NBC-TV's Today show, PBS-TV's Small Talk for Parents and the CBS Radio Networks. You can visit Judy at