USC Researchers Study the Impact of Recent Disasters on Disabled Individuals

Aug 23, 2017

At the University of South Carolina, three faculty researchers have formed an unexpected research partnership in response to the Thousand-Year-Flood. Soon after the historic October 2015 rain event, a Dr. Clayton Copeland of the School of Library Science approached two of her colleagues from the School of Medicine’s Rehabilitation Counseling Program and proposed a joint study of disabled individuals’ experiences in relation to the flood.

Copeland first had the idea for the research when USC announced a research funding initiative called “South Carolina Resilience to Extreme Storms: Research on Social, Environmental, and Health Dimensions of the October 2015 Catastrophic Flooding.” Copeland knew that Dr. Robert Dawson and Dr. David Leach shared her interest in supporting differently abled individuals, and saw an opportunity to collaborate within the parameters of the research funding initiative.

“All of us—having a shared passion for equity of access, and ensuring people with disabilities have needs met, and are able to participate in society and contribute to society—had an interest in investigating the impact of the flood on that demographic,” she said.

Ultimately, their project, “Effecting Change in Emergency Disaster Preparation: The Voices of Persons with Disabilities,” became one of 32 interdisciplinary research projects that were awarded funding. According to Dawson, the interdisciplinary nature of their research is what makes the project strong.

“The idea of library science and rehabilitation counseling initially does not seem like a natural partnership, but [libraries] are probably one of the main ways that we see communities meeting, communities getting information out. It was a natural partnership to really investigate ways that persons were affected, as well as ways of developing intervention tools in the future—to educate, and then gather more data,” Dawson said.

Dawson has served as director for the quantitative elements of the team’s research. He processes data drawn from surveys completed by disabled individuals, as well as by trauma professionals from Able South Carolina, an independent living center that has provided flood survivors with counseling and other services. Altogether, Dawson has so far assessed data from 123 persons with disabilities and 17 trauma professionals and volunteers. The subjects have included a broad range of disabilities, from physical impairments to autism.

...we fought the water. We fought the flood all night, all day all night.

Copeland and Leach, on the other hand, have collaborated on the qualitative portion of the research, which involved conducting interviews with disabled individuals who were affected by the flood. While the subjects’ identities remain confidential, Leach was able to share notable quotes from the participants—which he said “spoke to the trauma” of victims’ experiences.

“Something caught the corner of my eye,” one subject reflected, “some flash or something, and I looked, and I saw the water and I’m like, ‘what?’ And I went in there, and it’s just a waterfall coming down. So we fought the water. We fought the flood all night, all day all night . . . we got a little break, and it just started back over again, and we just took shifts and we pumped water.”

According to Leach, the Lowcountry woman in question had multiple physical disabilities, as did her fiancé and brother, who assisted with pumping the water from the house all night in order “to keep their home safe and sound, and . . . keep each other safe and sound.”

Leach and Copeland sought stories like these with the goal of analyzing how disabled flood victims felt they were treated during and after the flood. What they discovered was that, by and large, disabled flood victims expressed that emergency services didn’t seem to be prepared with the resources to help them. Many subjects felt that the efforts state emergency response services made to cater to the unique needs of persons with disabilities were too little, too late.

...they scrambled to try and help, but they didn't have the resources planned.

To quote one subject:  “As the saying goes, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition. They need to expect and be prepared for disasters; they weren’t. Then they scrambled to try and help, but they didn’t have the resources planned.”

Copeland explained that collecting first-person narratives is vital in the effort to improve the systems in place for disabled victims of natural disasters.

“We hope that access to that information and to these lived experiences will change the ability of the community to better serve all individuals in later disasters, as they occur,” Copeland said. “We learn from lived experiences.”

In fact, Copeland, Dawson and Leach were presented with a built-in opportunity to test whether the state’s emergency services had indeed improved in fall 2016, when Hurricane Matthew made landfall along South Carolina’s coast, and they noticed some marked and visible improvements. Leach cited, for example, improved interpretation services for the deaf community.

“During the flood, it took several days for there to be sign language interpreters available for the press conferences and things like that,” Leach said. “What we saw in Hurricane Matthew was that the state provided not only interpreting services, but they provided an additional level of that.”

During televised emergency programming related to the flood, officials made important announcements regarding evacuation and other safety procedures. Offscreen, another hearing person translated the officials’ messages into American Sign Language. Then, a deaf individual broke that message down into easy-to-understand ASL onscreen. According to Leach, this process allowed even deaf individuals with “lower linguistic sophistication” to receive important hurricane-related information.

Dawson, Leach and Copeland have already presented their findings at a number of national and international conferences, such as the American Rehabilitation Counseling Conference, as well as to state and federal agencies, including a sub-group of the Department of Homeland Security. However, their research is ongoing.

Links:

Disability.gov’s Guide to Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Recovery

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Disability Emergency Preparedness

FEMA Resources for Accessible Emergency Management

An ADA Guide  for Local Governments