Maya Angelou, the late Poet Laureate wrote, “When we know better, we do better.”
After the Waldo Canyon Fire, our community took those words to heart and acted upon them. In the midst of that emergency, many of us – both with and without disabilities – weren’t sure what to do, where to go, or what we needed to survive if we had to leave our homes. But once the imminent danger passed, our community went to work. Individuals and groups in our community came together to examine what we learned so that we would be better prepared for the next disaster.
Once we “knew better,” we started to “do better.” Emergency preparedness programs started coordinating across the region. Multiple alerting systems and better communication systems were put into place. Accessible shelters were identified and others were outfitted to accommodate our community. Information was widely distributed about what to have in our “go” bags if we had to evacuate and what we needed on hand if we had to shelter in place.
Just a year later, these preparations were put to the test when the Black Forest Fire erupted. Our new emergency protocols resulted in less panic and a better outcome. Sign language interpreters were at all the emergency briefings. The high school that served as a shelter for that community was far more disability friendly-it even had a roll in shower! Emergency managers got practice working and responding together. As a result, we now we have a regional Office of Emergency Response.
Today, we are in the throes of something completely new: the COVID-19 pandemic. While some of the lessons learned during other disasters are helpful, we are learning new ones. How do we navigate uncharted territory like getting food and medical supplies delivered? Or get access to reliable information? Or process paperwork for government benefits with a computer? Or what to do if a caregiver that we rely on is unable to come to our home? Or how to deal emotionally and mentally with prolonged isolation?
Of course, these are many of the same challenges that people with disabilities face every day – with or without a pandemic. And it is yet another reminder that equal access to critical infrastructure can make all lives better, safer, and more connected. Now that the whole world understands the importance of communication and social connection, I hope we can do better going forward. It is my dream that, as part of this “brave new world,” Internet service will become an affordable utility and basic computers will be like telephones – something no household is without. If we make sure that everyone knows how to use that equipment to order groceries and medical supplies, to connect with community services, and catch up with loved ones, we will have gone a long way toward making the world truly accessible for all.