Summit Participant: Massachusetts Commission for the Blind

Massachusetts Commission for the Blind Logo

The Massachusetts  Western Region Homeland Security Advisory Council’s Whole Community Preparedness Summit will be held at the UMass Amherst Conference Center on May 22nd, 2013. This event is going to feature a whole host of organizations and agencies from both the MA State and local level that provide services and resources to members of our communities who have disabilities or who might require additional assistance during a disaster event.  In a series of blog posts we will provide some basic background information about these organizations, discuss their overarching missions and highlight how they will be contributing at the summit.

Today, we are pleased to turn our spotlight toward the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind (MCB). MCB was established in 1906, and was originally comprised of 3 men and 2 women, including Ms. Helen Keller. More than a century later, the MCB is now one of fifteen agencies in the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS).

MCB provides a wide range of rehabilitation and social services to blind individuals of all ages in order to help them lead independent lives and fully participate in their communities. MCB accomplishes this critical mission by working in partnership with legally blind individuals, families, community agencies, health care providers, and employers. There are currently more than 35,000 legally blind persons registered with the Commission. The services they provide include: 

  • Vocational Rehabilitation (VR), including diagnostic studies, counseling and guidance, individual plans for employment (IPE), restorative and training services, rehabilitation and mobility instruction, assistive technology, adaptive housing, job placement, and post-employment services
  • Assistive technology
  • Independent living social services, including homemaking assistance, assistive devices, mobility instruction, and peer support groups
  • Specialized services for blind seniors (BRIDGE program)
  • Specialized services for blind children, including referrals for early intervention, public benefits, respite care, and socialization and recreation programs
  • Specialized services for blind/deaf individuals and others with multiple disabilities
  • Rehabilitation instruction, including Braille and typing, use of low-vision devices, labeling and recordkeeping, food preparation, home safety, and self-care techniques
  • Orientation and mobility instruction, including guide dogs
  • MassHealth services for financially eligible people who are legally blind, including long-term care services, hospital services, personal care attendants, private duty nursing, and transportation services
  • Consumer assistance and advocacy for issues related to blindness such as housing and job discrimination, guide dog issues, or transportation problems.

You can find out more about the Commission’s work and how it relates to disaster planning and response at the summit. The “Disaster shelter guidelines for an emergency” is a great resource developed by the Commission. You can view it by clicking the hyperlink. Meg Robertson, the Director of the Orientation & Mobility Department at MCB will be speaking in Break Out Session 2: Strengthening What Works on a Daily Basis. Register here.

For more info: Massachusetts Commission for the Blind Website

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FEMA Presentation: Disability Inclusive Emergency Management

Post by: Kim Stephens

femachairI would like to call your attention to a presentation published by FEMA last month titled: “Disability Inclusive Emergency Management: Understanding the preparedness, response and recovery needs of the whole community.”

The 54 page powerpoint includes definitions of access and functional needs, the language that should be used, Federal laws that prohibit discrimination, key principles, and examples of how to implement those key principles including, for instance, programmatic and communications access. It also addresses sheltering, housing and even how to exercise your plan.

Why is this so important? As noted in the presentation:

My experience tells me if we wait and plan for people with disabilities after we write the basic plan, we fail.” Craig Fugate

Has your agency integrated the access and functional needs community into all phases of your community-wide emergency management plan? Do you see anything they missed? Let me know what you think.

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Disaster Planning for People Experiencing Homelessness

Post by: Kim Stephens

Homeless man in Anchorage, Alaska

Homeless man in Anchorage, Alaska (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have heard the argument that disaster planning is geared toward middle class Americans and that not enough attention is paid to those who do not fit the stereotypical definition of the “norm.” A paper, titled Disaster Planning for People Experiencing Homelessness, which was published in March of 2009 by Sabrina Edgington, reminds us that planning is required for the entire community. The paper was written for the National Health Care for the Homeless Council and can be found here.

One of the key points in the paper is that coordination and relationship building between the emergency management community and the various homeless service providers is critical. This isn’t surprising since this type of collaboration is considered important with any group of individuals that require additional assistance during a disaster.   I do like, however,  how the author encourages these service providers to get to know their emergency managers and get involved with the planning process, versus simply indicting the EM community for not included them.

The author states in the executive summary:

This publication provides an overview of important issues to consider when planning for the needs of homeless people during disasters. Practical guidance is offered to local officials, emergency planners, homeless service providers and others who are involved in their community’s emergency planning process. The final part of this publication encourages Health Care for the Homeless providers and others involved in homeless service provision to participate in disaster planning efforts in their communities.

The following issues are addressed in this publication and described briefly below:

  • defining special needs populations
  • personal preparedness
  • communication
  • transportation and evacuation
  • sheltering
  • health status
  • transition to housing

If you have homeless people in your community it is worth a read. Thanks to @NLM_DIMRC for Tweeting about this paper.

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Communicating with Individuals Requiring Additional Assistance: There’s an app for that!


Post by: Kim Stephens

The Massachusetts Department of Health and Human Services, Emergency Preparedness Bureau has created a hands-on tool to reduce communication barriers and better assist individuals with access and functional needs (or IRAA) during an emergency.

“Show Me: A Communication Tool for Emergency Shelters is a 21-page booklet that is divided into topic-themed sections, and contains a variety of icons including language needs, medical needs, and personal care needs. Using the booklet, individuals can make their needs and concerns known to professional shelter staff and volunteers within a community shelter setting during an emergency. Local public health departments and emergency management departments across the Commonwealth have received a copy of the tool which is a useful resource to support their whole community planning and response efforts.”

View the toolkit here.

The great news is that this booklet will be available as an iPad application soon.  The new app will provide even more functionality and ways of communicating with the IRAA population. As soon as it is available we will post it here.

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Social Media and Vulnerable Populations During Sandy

Post by: Kim Stephens

Listen to this great piece by Talk of the Nation on NPR titled: “Sandy Especially Tough on Vulnerable Populations.”

This broadcast was done on November 1, 2012, just four days after the storm struck. One of the people the moderator spoke to is Alejandra Ospina. Alejandra uses a wheelchair and is the partner of Nick Dupree, a person who requires a ventilator. The couple live on the 12th floor of a building in the Tribeca area of  NYC and were without power for many days after Sandy. Alejandra spoke to NPR about how a network of both friends and people they had never met helped them get through the aftermath of the storm.

What she doesn’t talk about, however, is how that all happened via social media. The entire story was detailed on the blog “Little Free Radical” in a long piece titled  “Unconventional Aid: Helping Nick Dupree, Social Networking Style.”  This extraordinary story details how an inchoate group of people came together to provide the assistance this couple needed to stay in their home and to remain safe and well. The following paragraph from the story describes a bit about how social media was put to use:

In the meantime, other facebook friends put together & started distributing a note, PLEASE CIRCULATE WIDELY in NYC – need help during the blackout, and put together a Google Document, Giving Nick and Alejandra a Hand to help coordinate items they needed as well as nursing care, volunteers to run up and down 12 flights of stairs as batteries died to go recharge them. It gave volunteers in NYC area a good starting point for what types of help they needed. And then everyone knew who was working on what – even though many of us had no clue who each other was.

Let me know what you think. What role should government play in helping people in this situation, if any? Nick did not want to go, nor need to go to a hospital and a shelter would have been devastating. As Alejandra stated in the interview, the Fire Department helped by charging the batteries, but really couldn’t provide much more direct assistance because they were already overtaxed. This couple was able to get the help they needed from volunteers, and even though it was a cobbled together last-minute solution, it did work. It makes me wonder, however, about the isolated–folks who are not as tuned in via social media or other networks and have no close family or friends to help them. What solutions could be recommended for them?

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Social Media Accessibility Toolkit: New from Emergency Wiki 2.0

Post by: Kim Stephens

(reblogged from

English: A collection of pictograms. Three of ...

English: A collection of pictograms. Three of them used by the United States National Park Service. A package containing those three and all NPS symbols is available at the Open Icon Library (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One question that inevitably comes up when discussing social media with emergency managers  is the problem of accessibility: Is the content on social media available to everyone in my community? In turn, community members with disabilities want access to content on social networks and want to use these tools during a crisis. Although there are answers about how best to address these concerns, before today, solutions were not in one handy location. That has changed with the launch of the Accessibility Toolkit on the Emergency 2.0 Wiki (full disclosure–I was involved with planning the launch of this site). The wiki is a voluntary initiative of the Gov 2.0 QLD Community of Practice in Australia, launched in December 2011.

The purpose of the toolkit is stated clearly on the site:

The Emergency 2.0 Wiki Accessibility Toolkit was developed to empower people with disabilities to use social media for disaster preparedness, response and recovery. This toolkit was developed in response to the fact that not all people with a disability are able to access life saving messages delivered through social media due to the accessibility challenges that the tools currently pose.

International Collaboration

The kit was pulled together with a team, they call  a reference group, which included individuals from Australia, the United States and New Zealand. Dr. Scott Hollier, one of the group’s members as well as an Advisory Committee Representative at Media Access Australia, provides some context for why the group felt this tool was necessary:

“We’ve witnessed from recent disasters that social media has the potential to save lives, but people with disabilities often have difficulty accessing important messages as the social media platforms are inaccessible. For example, the main Twitter website can’t be easily read with a screen reader, the device that reads out information on a screen for people who are blind, but important emergency information can be accessed by using an alternative site such as Easy Chirp to read tweets,” he said.  “As people tweet in real time, an accessible app such as Easy Chirp can provide people who are blind with immediate notification of when a fire starts or when flash floods hit a town,” said Dr Hollier.

Information for People With A Disability

The toolkit includes a list of tips, resources and apps that are intended to assist people with a disability to overcome accessibility challenges of social media. Easy Chirp, for instance, is described and linked to, along with information about and links to emergency apps, such as those intended for people who are Deaf or hard of hearing that vibrate and flash when sending emergency alerts. The wiki also includes emergency preparedness YouTube videos that either use sign language or are captioned.

Information for the Professional Communicator

For the emergency sector, government, community, media and business professionals there are practical guidelines listed that will help them make their social media messages more accessible.  For example, information is provided about how to use apps to add captioning on YouTube Videos for people who are Deaf or hard of hearing.

One of the best aspects of Emergency 2.0 Wiki is that it is a free volunteer-based resource. Their goal is laudable:   “…to build resilience by empowering all sectors of the community with the knowledge to use social media and networks in emergencies.” The fact that they are working to accomplished this goal via international collaboration, knowledge sharing and crowdsourcing locally and globally, is the cherry on top!

If you have any questions about the wiki simply leave a comment here or contact Stephanie Jo Kent, Working Group on Emergency Interpreting at Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc; Founder, Learning Labs for Resiliency.

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Individuals Requiring Additional Assistance in a Disaster: Sandy Reminds us to Think Beyond the Emergency Kit

Post by: Steph Jo Kent and Madeline Peters

Looking at the situation in New York and New Jersey we can see two time-streams of emergency preparedness and response: there is the immediate onset of crisis and then there are the accumulating factors for people who have not considered themselves particularly vulnerable, but find that their health and well-being is becoming compromised during the days of repair and recovery. This “grey zone” requires as much attention and planning as pre-disaster preparedness planning and the initial emergency response.

Do you have the personal -care items you need?

The dual unfolding of a catastrophy as an immediate crisis and an ongoing disaster means people with disabilities need to think beyond the emergency kit and think about systems. Of course, taking your emergency kit seriously is crucial: we can see that people effected by Hurricane Sandy did not have enough food, flashlights, clothing, water, or places to go to the bathroom. Listing what you need and keeping these items in stock is a safety requirement no one can afford to ignore.

Recharging batteries and maintaining power to electrical dispensing systems can become a matter of survival very quickly. For this need in particular, registries are unavoidable. If you want people to be able to help you – they need to know where you are and what accommodations you most require. These lists need to be maintained by local town or city jurisdictions, marketing annually (if not more often) by city officials in sign-up campaigns, and updated regularly – by the individuals who want the chance of accessible rescue.

Do you have a network of people who know your plan and will remember to look out for you? 

Like it or not, the burden of survival is on each individual, which is why you need to ensure there is a network of people who know your plan and will remember to look out for you. This network could include:

  • personal care attendants
  • parents
  • extended family: cousins, aunts or uncles
  • friends
  • neighbors

In other words, your network should be anyone who is willing to accept some degree of accountability for your general safety. These network people should help you design your personal plan: they can help you create an evacuation procedure as well as a shelter-in-place plan.

You and your network should be clear on the location and routes of travel to accessible shelters, as well as being sure you have a 7-10 day supply of food, water, medication, batteries, etc., either in storage at your home or near enough for delivery by someone in your network. If you use a PCA you may need extra supplies for that individual. If you have a service animal food, water, identification (both paper and on the animal) are all important items to plan for.

Think about what would happen if your network people are unavailable:

  • What is your back-up plan?
  • Who will you call?
  • How will you contact them? and
  • Are they prepared to suddenly provide the kinds of assistance you need?

Are you ready to evacuate or accept help?

Being able to move about before a storm is better and easier then having to try to negotiate after a storm – which may not even be possible. Navigating after a storm is more complicated for everyone, and especially if you have vision or mobility disabilities. You’ve got to think through your comfort level with being rescued by people you do not know (especially for people with Asperger’s Syndrome), keeping in mind that they also do not know you or your specific needs. You’ve got to be ready to show them what you need to bring with you.

At the systems level, it would be helpful to learn if wheelchair users tend to evacuate (if so, how?) or stay put when evacuation orders are issued (if so, why?); whether or not they have a back-up manual wheelchair (if a manual wheelchair can accommodate them); and how will they manage if they are removed from their home without a wheelchair? What transportation plans have been tested and approved for moving people with their wheelchairs and other mobility aids (white canes, service animals, etc.).

Are you ready to communicate?

Communicating among one’s survival network as well as sharing information with friends and family must also be carefully planned. When the power goes out, most modern technology also fails. Old-fashioned landline telephones are the most secure system, with online social media available to those who can recharge cellphone batteries in their vehicles (provided the wireless towers remain powered). The provision of sign language interpreters at press conferences should become an icon of public communication: if an interpreter is on television, something serious is happening—you should pay attention!

If you have not done any prep until a major news conference, however, you may find that your chance of becoming a victim is greatly increased. Therefore, start planning now! There are many great resources to help you. Here are two:

Here is a list of aggregated preparedness resources from

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