Family Emergency Plans – Accommodating Members with Special Needs

Family disaster planning might not seem like a huge deal, but if a member of your family has special needs then you could be looking at a whole other set of circumstances. Individuals requiring special attention have many of the same basic needs as you or me, but different stages of a disaster could prove more difficult for the elderly or those with either physical or mental challenges. My in-laws came to stay with us for two weeks while their house was being fumigated for bedbugs. As if that wasn’t enough to deal with on its own, a winter storm decided to sweep through, covering the roads with several inches of ice.

Fortunately our family emergency plan was easily adaptable and we managed to avoid sheer pandemonium. But what if it had gone horribly wrong? American actor and musician David Ogden Stiers once said, “Family means no one gets left behind or forgotten.” All families can appreciate this statement, but none so much as the family that deals with special challenges on a daily basis. When a disaster happens, it’s those families that will have to pull even more tightly together, acting as a team to carry out their emergency plan.

The first question to ask, regardless of the special needs of your family, is what emergency planning is available from your local first aid center? Some communities might have specific classes for visually or hearing impaired, and your local hospital or outpatient program may have a class for those with mental challenges. Here are some other things to consider when creating your family’s emergency plan:

Visually impaired

  • Does your community evacuation shelter have copies of signs and other information written in Braille?
  • Do elevators in community buildings travel straight to the first floor in case of situations needing an evacuation, like fire or other structural damage?
  • What other alarms are in place to warn visually impaired citizens of an impending disaster or other emergency situation?

Hearing impaired

  • Does your community offer special hearing impaired warning signs, such as strobe lights and special elevator accommodations?
  • Does local television programming offer TV crawl notices alerting the hearing impaired to instructions for evacuation or other disaster-related information?
  • Are evacuation shelters equipped with an interpreter who can ease the stress for hearing impaired citizens?

Mentally impaired

  • Is vocational training available to patiently train mentally impaired citizens how to follow the steps in an emergency plan?
  • Does your community have a way to search for and rescue mentally impaired citizens who may not understand the warning signs of an impending disaster?
  • Are programs available to help meet the post-disaster needs of these citizens?

Wheelchair users

  • Is transportation available to employ special rescue techniques for wheelchair users in the event of an evacuation?
  • Which shelters are handicapped-friendly, making it easier for wheelchair users to access necessary areas like the rest room?
  • Is your community’s emergency system planned so that wheelchair users and other special needs citizens aren’t made to feel vulnerable or discriminated against?


  • How does your community identify elderly who might need assistance without openly listing their names and addresses?
  • What provisions are in place for citizens who are unable to drive due to age-related mobility impairments?
  • Which shelters are recommended by social service agencies? Some communities designate a specific shelter for mature citizens, to avoid problems with things like dietary needs and finding a way home after the disaster has passed.

Another unique problem faced at shelters is service dogs. Some shelters have a “no pets” rule that they erroneously direct to animals such as a guide dog for a visually or hearing impaired citizen, an autism service dog, or a seizure alert dog. When shelters refuse these animals in, they’re forcing a citizen with special needs to choose between the safety of a shelter during a catastrophe, and the safety of staying with an animal that helps them safely function from day to day.

Because not all service animals wear special collars and harnesses, it can sometimes prove difficult to tell if it’s a service dog or a pet. However, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s unlawful to refuse service dogs. Additionally, no one may insist on proof of state certification before permitting the service animal to accompany a person with a disability. But sadly, just because they aren’t supposed to insist on it doesn’t mean they won’t. One friend with a seizure-alert dog solved this problem by keeping a copy of her state certification in her car emergency kit.

When your family has members with exceptional needs, then your family’s emergency plan must be exceptional as well. Damage to your family’s home or being evacuated can cause more stress than usual for those with special needs. With careful preparation and clear communication, there are many ways of keeping the family safe during a disaster.

About the Author:  More than 16 years in the insurance industry has given Duncan Morrison the opportunity to meet families of all shapes and sizes. Firsthand experiences with extreme seasonal weather in his own Edmonton, Canada along with tragedies such as the earthquake in Japan and the severe flooding in Australia prompted him to create, a website that offers advice about planning for a variety of disaster situations, from creating a home survival kit that accommodates the needs of all family members to finding a pet-friendly evacuation shelter. He also highly recommends an emergency escape ladder for upper floor bedrooms. When he’s not hard at work inside his home office, he involves playing golf and going to the movies with his wife.

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About Arlene Martell

Arlene Martell is the publisher of and the author of Getting Adam Back – A Mother's triumph over Epilepsy and Autism. She resides in a seaside suburb on Vancouver BC Canada with her husband James and their four children Adam, Justin, Shelby and Victoria.