Specialists discuss need for inclusion in times of disaster


Courtesy / GVSU

Elizabeth Schanz

Grand Valley State University students were able to partake in a panel discussion called “Disabilities, Disaster and Preparedness, and Climate Discussionwhere they were able to listen to specialists and ask questions relating to disaster preparedness. The discussion pinpointed ways to better help those who are marginalized in society when facing natural disasters and problems like the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The panel members included Dr. Karla Black and Patricia Draper, members of the Kent County Health Department; Dr. Shontaye Witcher the Director of Disability Support at GVSU; Gabby Roux, a specialist in public health; and Anna Landre, a disability activist. This group was able to bring their expertise to further the discussion surrounding preparedness.  

The event addressed what society has done in previous times of disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, the 2021 Texas winter storm, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic where plans to help the public fell short leading to more damage. By looking at these shortcomings the panel focused on issues including funding and helping all groups of people. 

Anna Landre, as a wheelchair user, talked from personal experience.

“What’s important in disaster preparedness particularly, is to look at disability as the reaction in some ways to a deeply ableist world,” Landre said. “Disabled people are not expected losses.”

Landre and the other panelist stressed that in order to bridge the gap in disaster preparedness those with disabilities must be part of the planning process to create a positive change for all. Disadvantaged individuals have historically been excluded from effective planning, for instance the many deaths of disabled people in Hurricane Katrina who were unable to get transportation, senior citizens in homes dying in large numbers during the COVID-19 pandemic, and numerous other instances of inequality. 

Being a part of Kent County Health Department, Black pushed for policies in preparation that help to lessen the “snowball effect” which creates additional consequences that people had not intended or had a proper plan for. Today we see that COVID-19 creates additional hardships for those who are deaf, hard of hearing or blind.   

Draper said, “For people who are deaf it has been very difficult because we have been masking to keep from sharing our respiratory droplets and that is very difficult for people who are hard of hearing, because (people) rely on the facial expressions in order to understand.”

With many problems stemming from disasters, it can create additional hardships that are not accounted for or supported by funding. The panelists emphasized the need for funding in order to properly reach the community in these challenging and vital times. 

Black stressed the importance of expanding preparedness not only in Kent County but across the board.

“‘We want to make public health preparedness the ‘sexy thing in public health,’” Black said. “Hopefully after COVID people will see how truly important this field is because it has been so underfunded for so long.”

In order to learn more about emergency preparedness within Kent County and to gain resources through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic go to www.accesskent.com