The Forgotten Victims of September 11: People with Disabilities

Posted on 11 September 2011. Filed under: Advocacy, Disability | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Today is the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that killed about 3000 people at the World Trade Center in New York, at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and in a field in Pennsylvania, as well as the passengers on the four planes used as weapons of terror. But what most people don’t realize is that a very high portion of the people who died that day were people with disabilities. And this isn’t because they were targeted by terrorists, or because people didn’t bother trying to rescue them. This is because the most typical disaster preparedness plan put in place for people with disabilities usually involves some variant of: Come to location X near the stairs, then sit and wait for rescue. The only problem is, sometimes an emergency moves so fast that there is simply no time for rescue to arrive. And when that happens, people with disabilities are often the first to die because they are the last to be evacuated.

Dave Hingsburger has written his own perspective on this issue today: The plans others make for us are usually not going to be as good as the plans we make for ourselves–especially if you are a person with a disability. Please go read:

The Gathering Place–Remembering Those with Disability on 9/11

If the terrorists hadn’t attacked on September 11, then 3000 people needn’t have died that day. But if people making emergency preparedness plans had valued the lives of people with disabilities enough to create and implement some plan better than, “Sit here and wait,” then those 3000 victims could have been 200 fewer. And this does not even count the fire fighters who were rushing up the stairs, in part, to try to rescue them in time.

Read more about the experiences of people with disabilities during disaster situations in this report from the National Council on Disabilities in the United States:

Among other things, they didn’t have the right tools on Sept. 11. The few wheelchair riders who did escape the towers on September 11 had their own evacuation chairs. I don’t know what model they used, but if you’ve never heard of an evacuation chair designed for the needs of people with mobility impairments who need to be evacuated from a multi-floor building, visit as one model (though there are other companies that make products similar to this).

I used to work at the World Bank in Washington, DC. The main building there has an evacuation chair (I don’t remember what model) at every stairwell on every flight of stairs. This was implemented there thanks to the advocacy of a very outspoken wheelchair riding employee who was there a few years ago. All public buildings ought to have something like this, along with a plan for ensuring that wheelchair riders and other people who have difficulty on stairs have the assistance they need in using an evacuation chair.

If you’re buying an evac chair for a specific person, then the person may want to try out several models, or at least do their research well: different people, naturally, have different needs depending on the exact nature and effect of their disability and their strengths–a chair perfectly suited for one person’s needs may be disastrous for another. Also take note if you need an evac chair to evacuate someone from below ground: some evac chairs apparently do better coming down stairs than up stairs, so investigate closely.

Find more information and resources on disability in disaster situations by exploring the on-line Global Disability Rights Library at

I apologize for the lack of citations and additional references in this post. I am trying to dash this off while juggling other responsibilities including trying to do some office work from home this weekend. It is my hope that this post and the links will inspire others to google their own references on related topics (try “disability and disaster preparedness” or other such phrases) to learn more on your own. Please do share any interesting resources you find in the comments area below for others to check out.

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3 Responses to “The Forgotten Victims of September 11: People with Disabilities”

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Thank you for this post. I found the information about the evacu chair really helpful and we are looking at purchasing some for my home agency. We have a couple of apartments for people with physical disabilities and want to have one for each of these that we have. Thanks for making the world safer for those in Vita.

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