updated 4/15/2005 7:23:48 AM ET 2005-04-15T11:23:48

Emergency plans often leave out disabled people, increasing the risk that when disaster strikes they will be left behind or won’t have information that could save their lives, the National Council on Disability says.

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The council, a federal agency that advises the president and Congress, looked at the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and other manmade and natural disasters. It found holes in evacuation plans that left disabled people vulnerable.

Martin Gould, a research specialist for the council, said no amount of planning for people with disabilities could save everyone in a circumstance like the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. Still, he said, “Decisions about who the people are, where they are located and how they need to be evacuated should be made in advance, and there should not be a need for decisions to be made during a crisis.”

At the twin towers, plans for the disabled were put in place after a 1993 bombing that killed six people. But survivors of the 2001 attacks said regular drills were not held and some people did not know or had forgotten about available aids such as evacuation chairs — lightweight escape seats for wheelchair users — that had been stashed in some offices, the report said.

'The plan fell apart'
“When disaster struck, the plan fell apart,” said the study, which was to be released Friday. “Most of those who had been assigned to help with rescue devices were frightened and fled downstairs.”

In one tragic example, Ed Beyea, 300 pounds and in a wheelchair, declined help from a co-worker on the 27th floor of One World Trade Center because he knew it would take several people to move him. Abe Zelmanowitz, a friend, stayed by his side while an assistant made it to safety and told a firefighter where the two were. The pair died, after Zelmanowitz talked to his mother on a cell phone.

It was a different story at the ninth-floor offices of the Associated Blind, where the entire staff was able to escape. To be sure, their chances were greatly enhanced by being so low in the building to begin with. But survivors also credited procedures put in place by their organization after the 1993 bombing.

“Although it would seem that the events of September 11, 2001, would have created widespread change and innovation related to disaster preparedness for all individuals as well as people with disabilities, this has not been the case,” the report concluded.

Better preparations needed
The study said energy blackouts in the Northeast and Midwest, hurricanes in Florida and fires and floods in the West underscore the need to strengthen safety plans for the disabled.

For example, evacuation announcements from patrol cars during the 2003 California wildfires eluded people who were deaf or hard of hearing, the report said, and the lack of captioning on TV screens meant many did not know the danger they were in. Visual images often did not include printed names of specific neighborhoods at risk.

The council recommended that the Homeland Security Department establish a group of disabled people and others to meet regularly with federal officials to discuss what needs to be done. Guidance should also be issued for state and local emergency planning departments, it said.

The Federal Communications Commission should ensure that broadcasters comply with their obligation to make emergency information accessible to those with hearing and vision disabilities, the report said.

People with disabilities make up 20 percent of Americans 5 or older, the Census Bureau says. Disabled people include those who are in wheelchairs or are blind, deaf, have heart disease, psychiatric conditions, arthritis and asthma.

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