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Hurricane Katrina and Disability: Being Disabled and Poor in New Orleans

ZNet Commentary (www.zmag.org)

Being Disabled and Poor in New Orleans [excerpt]

September 25, 2005

By Marta Russell

If you are disabled and rich or somewhat well-off and lived in New Orleans you probably got out of the city before the levees broke and flooded some 60 percent of the parishes.

If you are rich and use a wheelchair you probably had a van with a ramp or car of your own with gas money to get you to safety. If you are blind you likely had a driver with a car to take you to the high lands. If you are deaf, use a cane, walker, crutches, service animal, or have mental health needs and you have money, you also got yourself out perhaps with the help of family.

But if you are disabled and poor in New Orleans you likely had none of these options.

A 911 caller told the operator, “I am handicapped and have an 8-month-old baby. We are lying on the bed. The water is coming up fast. We need help.”

But no help came.

No help came because there was no planned evacuation for poor disabled residents.

Being disabled and poor meant one’s chances for survival were less than one’s nondisabled counterparts.

While many of the least fortunate were waiting and hoping for the absent cavalry to arrive on those rooftops at least one quadriplegic could not be pulled up on the roof to semi-safety. He drowned instead.

There were others.

We know that in New Orleans 23.2 percent of residents were disabled persons out of a city of about 484,000 people. There were 102,122 disabled people 5 years of age and older who lived in New Orleans at the time of the flood.

At least half of the disabled persons in New Orleans who are of working age were not employed.

To be disabled and poor in New Orleans and much of the U.S. meant to rely on a variety of government programs such as Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid to help one meet one’s daily service and support needs.

Being disabled and poor in one group home for the blind meant staff abandoned one to sink or swim.

Being disabled and poor meant being separated from any type of accessible public transportation before the flood and there was no accessible transportation afterwards.

Being disabled and poor for blind people meant being unable to even get around in one’s own flooded neighborhood because one could no longer navigate the environmental landscape.

Being disabled and poor for people with physical disabilities who are over 65 years of age meant being unable to leave one’s home, group home, nursing home, or hospital without significant assistance.

Being disabled and poor meant to have lost or become separated from the drugs one relies on daily for diabetes, high blood pressure, and other chronic conditions and have little means to access pharmacies when it became apparent the calvary was permanently absent.

Being disabled and poor for those driven by flood waters from institutions, group homes, or nursing homes meant being housed in less than satisfactory conditions with considerably less than the necessary range of services and supports needed for an unknown stretch of time.

Being disabled and poor meant that one stood a good chance of dying from the insufferable heat, as at least 154 patients died this way suggesting that vulnerable people plummeted to the bottom of priority lists if they were on lists at all.

Being disabled and poor for those who have service animals meant not being able to rely on those animals outside of the house or group home because these animals cannot navigate safely in the flooded streets.

Being disabled and poor for deaf persons meant being unable to access emergency information through television, radio, TTY, communications for the deaf because public communications systems were compromised and those available through the federal government were holed up outside the city awaiting orders to move into New Orleans.

Being disabled and poor meant being unable to secure life-saving food and water because many were trapped within the confines of inadequate supplied shelters, the convention center, or Super Bowl with all the other evacuees.

Being disabled and poor meant that when you died sitting in your wheelchair some respectful survivor might cover you with a sheet or some plastic.

Being disabled and poor meant that when the first responders at long, long last got to the Super Bowl, disabled persons were forced to leave their wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, and service animals behind, as these were not allowed on the buses.

Being poor and disabled means that one will have to wait months and months — if not years — to replace the wheelchairs and service animals that were taken from them in New Orleans.

Being poor and disabled often meant being evacuated to some nursing home in a strange town where one will have to fight hard to ever acquire the support services to live in the community again.

Being poor and disabled means needing Medicaid yet being relocated to another state where state governors have cut Medicaid to the extent that it is not serving those already enrolled. It is to find out that people are being dropped off the roles by the thousands — not added — when you desperately need your medications.

Being disabled and poor in need of accessible housing means depending upon HUD, which has allowed its funding to be cut so thin by the Bush administration that it is pitting the evacuees against the already poor and homeless in need of low-income housing. The federal agency HUD at the time of this writing has refused to offer any emergency funding to the nations housing authorities that are providing housing assistance to Katrina’s victims.

Being disabled and poor meant that if one managed to get to a Red Cross shelter with their wheelchair that the Red Cross would deny one entrance into their shelters because the shelters are not accessible. When the National Organization of Disability advocates went down there to see what was going on, they too were denied access.

We don’t have and may never have the data to tell us how many disabled people lost their lives when the waters rose above their heads. We do know that disabled people were disproportionately affected. I’m sure the government does not want the public to know how many disabled persons drowned their bodies bloated floating in the toxic sewer that was once a street or dehydrated, or starved in this preventable catastrophe and its aftermath.

Marta Russell is the author of Beyond Ramps: Disability at the End of the Social Contract (Common Courage Press)

Read this commentary in its entirety.