Sunday, August 31, 2008




Mayor Ray Nagin reports that the "storm of the century," Hurricane Gustav, is bearing down on New Orleans. Are we better prepared this time?

Time reports: "Stung by the images that flashed across the world, including the photo of an elderly woman dead in her wheelchair, her body covered with a blanket, officials promised to find a better way."

I remember that image too – the wheelchair, of course, is what got me. Not only the wheelchair, but also the appalling lack of recognition of disability issues in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I heard reporters talking about race and class and sidestepping the disability issue. I remember another image of a man with no legs on a rooftop. The newscast cut from that image to one of a reporter saying quizzically, "Why didn't some people leave?" The reporter, of course, drew no connection between those crazy stragglers and, say, the lack of legs.

So what's the plan for Gustav? "This time, the city has taken steps to ensure no one has an excuse not to leave. The state has a $7 million contract to provide 700 buses to evacuate the elderly, the sick and anyone around the region without transportation," reports Time.

Okay, well that appeases me slightly. They're going to consider the disabled this time? Great – give 'em "no excuse not to leave." But then the plan gets more bizarre. The shut-ins are apparently supposed to find their way to secret "pickup points" and not expect to be scooped up from their homes and beds. Not only that, but they are supposed to intuit the location of the "pickup points." "In New Orleans, the locations of the evacuation buses were not made public because people who need a ride are supposed to go to designated pickup points, not to the staging area." That's right: flex those arm muscles, Mr. No Legs: it's time to drag yourself to a "pickup point." Would it be too much to ask if there will be an accessible van to take some of the less fortunate hobblers to the pickup point? Can those who are bedridden at least be given a gurney with wheels and a push in the right direction?

Apparently not.

Resident Elouise Williams, 68, reported that she called the city's special 311 hotline number until she was "blue in the face," trying to figure out what to do, then decided to stay in the Algiers neighborhood to check on inhabitants who might not be able to get out. "My thing is, my fright is, if we have somebody in these houses and they're not able to get out, they're going to perish," she said, "And we had enough of that in Katrina."

Why does Elouise seem to be the only person with any common sense?

Maybe it's because people are so blinded to the realities of age and disability that they can't do anything but engage in bizarre victim-blaming and projections of personality attributions when the issue of disability or age comes up. AOL News reported yesterday that more than half of those who died in Hurricane Katrina were 75 or older. This is an appalling statistic. The article speculates why this might have been the case: "The results present a tragic portrait of elderly residents who may have thought the warnings were a false alarm, who feared that abandoning their homes would lead to looting, or who simply didn't want to leave their familiar surroundings for the unknown."

Of all of the victims who died, 22 percent died in hospitals and 12 percent in nursing homes. So am I to believe that some woman hooked up to dialysis was having a phobia about looting and "the unknown?" And that some guy with a walker didn't get out because he didn't want to "leave his familiar surroundings?" Are we this far off from recognizing human frailty and the need for basic accommodation?

CNN's coverage focused on those who "just won't leave" during this mandatory evacuation period, like those wacky restaurateurs who just can't stop selling bucketfuls of seafood as the Hurricane bears down. Oh, and also this disabled guy:

"Across town in the 9th Ward, a neighborhood decimated by Katrina, Sidney William climbs slowly out of his truck. He's 49 but moves like he's 20 years older.

'My legs hurt; my feet hurt a lot,' he said. 'It's not easy.'

William wants desperately to leave his native New Orleans to avoid Gustav. He didn't leave for Katrina because he didn't have the money. He won't talk about what happened to him during that storm.

'I wish I had the money to go.' Rejected for disability subsidies, he depends on his 23-year-old daughter, Gloria, to support the family."

All of this feels a little too close to home for me, since I have spent much of my adult life fighting for disability accommodations and trying to get people to understand that there are some of us who can't go to "pickup points" or travel at will because of our disabilities.

Of course the Americans With Disabilities Act only fights for "reasonable" accommodations for the disabled, and that word "reasonable" is a tremendous loophole. When basic human rights are not recognized, and people in nursing homes are given absolutely no way to escape the horror bearing down on them, they'll almost always – by some implication – be called unreasonable. They'll be called phobic about looters, or terrified of the unknown, or unable to recognize an alarm they have memorized over decades of living on the Gulf coast.

I hope one day the media, the government, and the public decide that "reasonable" accommodation is accommodation that values human life enough to meet it on the doorstep.

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