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Putting people with disability at the centre of disaster planning

8 April 2016

Natural disasters like floods and bushfires are commonplace in Australia these days, but what isn’t talked about are the experiences of people with disability during these emergencies.

“With Australia’s long history of floods, fires and storms, and with one in five people in NSW living with disability, it’s essential that we get this right."
Professor Llewellyn

Recent research shows people with disability are at least twice as likely to die or be injured during a disaster – and in many cases purely due to a lack of planning.

The University of Sydney, funded by the NSW State Office of Police and Emergency Services, is partnering with local communities to put people with disability in New South Wales at the centre of disaster preparedness planning.

The team is working with disaster-prone communities in Sutherland, Taree and the Hawkesbury to help community organisations, individuals and families better prepare for natural disasters to ensure people with disability aren’t left behind.

Project lead Professor Gwynnyth Llewellyn from the University of Sydney’s Centre for Disability Research and Policy said international tragedies such as the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami, and Hurricane Katrina show the devastating impact these events can have on people with disability.

“Excluding people with disability from the planning process leaves them hugely vulnerable to a system that doesn’t understand their needs and experiences,” said Professor Llewellyn.

Professor Llewellyn is quick to list a number of unacceptable examples including emergency communications in non-accessible formats, evacuation procedures that don’t cater for people using wheel chairs or with mobility challenges and temporary accommodation that cannot support essential equipment like ventilators.

“With Australia’s long history of floods, fires and storms, and with one in five people in NSW living with disability, it’s essential that we get this right,” she said.

The project will kick off with community workshops – starting in the Hawkesbury - where local councils, people with disability, community service organisations and local emergency managers will come together to discuss the strengths and barriers to carrying out disability-inclusive preparedness planning.

Mayor of Hawkesbury, Councillor Kim Ford said Hawkesbury City Council is pleased to participate in the program to develop local community resilience against the impacts of natural disasters.

“Whilst the Hawkesbury region contains spectacular countryside and hosts an enviable rural lifestyle close to Australia's largest city, the threat of natural disasters is high. Flooding of the Hawkesbury River and its tributaries, and bushfires are frequent.”

“As a community we need to be prepared to manage these risks for all members of our community, including populations that are more vulnerable due to both location and individual circumstances including disability.

“Whilst state and local volunteer resources are available to respond to emergencies, it is clear that losses and impacts can be minimised through knowledge sharing, preparation and collaboration.”

The researchers will use the information gathered to develop self-assessment tools for people with disability and community organisations to help them understand the risks and how to address them in advance – working together to ensure, coordinated local area action.

The project will also result in ‘resilience profiles’ for each community highlighting issues and providing resources to fill gaps, as well as the development of guidelines for Emergency Services to host future disaster preparedness workshops throughout NSW.

"It’s such an exciting opportunity to be able to bring what we know about disasters to the community, and include people with disability in these conversations, said Associate Professor Dale Dominey-Howes from University of Sydney’s School of Geosciences.

“It’s all about supporting and empowering the community as a whole to respond to disaster situations.”

Participate in the project

People with disability aged 18 to 60, and parents or carers, are invited to participate in this research program. Involvement will include attending two emergency preparedness workshops in your local council area and completing a self-assessment questionnaire to help you improve your capability to prepare for – and respond to - natural hazard emergencies.

Details of the initial workshops are:

  •  Hawkesbury: Monday 11 April
  •  Taree: Monday 9 May
  •  Sutherland: Friday 27 May
    Note: For privacy reasons media are asked not to attend the workshops. 

For more information visit:

To register your interest email or phone 02 9351 9152

This project is a partnership led by the University of Sydney’s Centre for Disability Research and Policy  and the School of Geosciences, and is funded under the 2014 joint State/Commonwealth Natural Disaster Resilience Scheme.


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