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Emergency Preparedness and People who are Blind and Visually Impaired

Emergency Preparedness and People who are Blind and Visually Impaired: A Handbook for the Consumer

Picture of three rings, one inside the other
The Three Rings Analogy

One of the most difficult issues with regard to pre-event planning for any emergency is the overwhelming amount of information available. The Three Rings Analogy is a simplified means of identifying and explaining disaster preparedness in a manner that encourages step-by-step positive action. It is based on the concept of three concentric rings; with each one set inside the other.

The center-most ring represents you as an individual. What will you need in an emergency? During most emergencies, unless it is a burning building or an unsafe or damaged structure, it is best to stay in place and wait for further instructions from their local emergency management agency. This center ring is the first step - what basic supplies should you have prepared?

The next ring out, is an expansion of this concept; and that is person-in-environment. Do you know what to do if you are at work or at a conference or convention? Where is the nearest exit? What will your family do if you are all separated? Who should you all contact?

The outer-most ring represents community and being active in the community. First responders, emergency planners, local transportation departments and many other officials involved in emergency management, are interested in knowing how best to serve the needs of people with disabilities. This third ring represents us, as blind individuals offering our experience and expertise to aid in their planning process to better serve our neighborhoods and communities.


There are a number of simple things that you, as a visually impaired individual can do to prepare both yourself and your family in the event of a disaster. One of the easiest things you can do to prepare for the unexpected is assemble a supply kit. This would include basic necessities for 72 hours; many of the items are things that you probably have already in and around your home. Consider marking emergency supplies with large print, fluorescent tape or Braille.

  1. Three days supply of water (one gallon per day per person). You don't have to go out and buy water. Simply cleaning and refilling old soda bottles or milk jugs and storing them in your home will suffice.
  2. Three days supply of non-perishable food (don't forget the can opener). Items such as canned ready-to-eat foods, boxed or canned juices, crackers, cereal, granola bars, or trail mix are all good examples. Be aware of the salt content, as it has the side effect of making you thirsty. Check and replace your foodstuffs every 6 months.
  3. Battery Operated or Crank Operated Radio (don't forget extra batteries). It is essential that information gets to you and in times or emergency the radio is often the first source.
  4. Flashlight and Plastic Emergency Whistle. Even among the visually impaired a flashlight can offer assistance not only for your mobility but that of someone who might be with you. The flashlight and whistle are both imperative for visibility and signaling purposes. The human voice can only shout at the highest volume for about 4 minutes.
  5. First Aid Kit. First Aid kits are available in many locations, but owning one isn't enough. Make sure that you are familiar with the contents and their placement in the kit. You might consider adding a blanket and toilettes to the kit.
  6. Toiletries and a change of clothing. These can include items as simple as toothbrush and toothpaste, hairbrush, toilet paper and garbage bags with ties.
  7. Prescriptions & Assistive Devices. Make sure you not only have the medication, but on a separate sheet accessible to you, the names and dosages of the medicines as well as your doctor's contact information. Also include prescription eye-ware, non-prescription medication that you might take regularly, and portable assistive devices (e.g. magnifiers, hearing aids, communication devices). Be very clear that these items are assistive devices and not just "baggage."
  8. Cane. Even if you have some useable vision or are guide dog user, a cane can be essential for mobility to help maneuver around obstacles and negotiate and identify barriers.
  9. Work Gloves and Sturdy Shoes. After auditory cues, touch is the most heavily relied upon sense for someone who is visually impaired. A pair of heavy work gloves and sturdy shoes can offer safety and security in exploring an unfamiliar environment in addition to the use of a cane.
  10. Identification and Important Papers. It is a good idea to put photocopies of important documents in a plastic bag and an accessible version of important numbers. This could include: identification, social security card, health insurance or Medicaid/Medicare cards, home/auto insurance papers, deeds, bank account numbers, contact numbers for your emergency contact person and local emergency numbers.

Note: If you have a service animal or pet, make sure that you have included food and water for your animal as well as bedding and a favorite toy. Also be certain that your service animal has appropriate identification.

No doubt there are many other items that are of utility but the goal of this handbook is simplicity with a focus on items specifically useful for people with visual impairments.

HOT TIP: If putting together your kit seems overwhelming it is possible to purchase "ready-made" Disaster Kits (Red Cross has these available). However, make sure you are familiar with all the items in the kit and keep in mind that these kits will not include equipment related to your disability and you will still need to collect important documents and contact information.


This ring deals with the person-in-environment and being aware of your surroundings and making plans so that wherever you are, you are informed and prepared.

  1. Know alternate transit, transportation and pedestrian routes in your neighborhood and work environments.
  2. Know emergency exits of buildings that you are in such as office buildings, apartment/condo complexes and hotels, as well as at conferences and events that you attend.
  3. Have a designated family contact or check-in person, preferably someone who is out of state. Local phone lines may be overwhelmed but long distance lines may still operate. Ensure that all family members know the phone number of the contact person or have the number in their possession. Make sure the contact person does not have an unlisted number, in case you are forced to look it up.
  4. Create and implement a buddy system. An example: having a reliable designated driver for home, school and work in case you need a ride in the event of an emergency. 70% of assistance after an emergency is made by neighbors, friends or other "buddies."
  5. Have a means of writing and taking down information to assist you with communication in the event of an emergency. Have paper, pens and markers, or slate and stylus in your possession in addition to assistive technology and back-up power supplies for your technology. Example: if you are an individual who is deaf/blind, have index cards with pre-printed phrases that you will need to use when communicating with first responders.
  6. Keep a copy of Local Emergency Numbers other than 911 easily available. During an emergency 911 will probably be overwhelmed with calls.
  7. Practice emergency plans and procedures with your family.
  8. If you must evacuate your home, post a message indicating where you have gone, take your emergency kit that contains vital documents and supplies, and make sure that you have a plan for the care of your pets.
  1. Ask about specific vulnerabilities for your community.
  2. Ask your local Department of Transportation if their emergency evacuation plan accommodates people with disabilities. State and Local governments generally have emergency evacuation plans in place for their jurisdictions. They may or may not be aware of the needs of people with visual impairments.
  3. Contact your first responders to explore the creation of a voluntary registry of people with disabilities located within their jurisdiction. Such a directory would give first responders the ability to contact or assist local residents during emergency situations.
  4. Talk to your Community emergency management agency about your concerns as a person with a disability. Ask what plans they have for before, during and after a disaster. Keep in mind that response efforts after a disaster are just as important as pre-event planning.
  5. Demand pre-event emergency planning information in accessible formats
  6. Encourage your community to disseminate information through creative alternatives, such as radio reading services or reverse 911.
  7. Work with your own neighborhood to develop a neighborhood evacuation plan. A Neighborhood Emergency Watch could function much like Neighborhood Watch, where neighbors inform each other of emergencies and work with each to ensure the safety of all.
  8. Help prepare yourself by contacting your local Red Cross for information and classes. In an emergency, you may need to provide first aid or other assistance, and the Red Cross can provide you with that training.
  9. Ask your local media to make sure that all emergency contact information is captioned, and read slowly and repeatedly for people who cannot see the screen.
  10. Ask local emergency responders and the Red Cross to ensure they maintain TTY service.

HOT TIP: If you are unsure of who to contact in your community regarding emergency preparedness and people who are blind or visually impaired, contact your local fire department. Your local fire service is usually integral to a community's disaster plans both prior to and after an event and will know who to direct you to.