“What a great class,” said Larry Martin. “My wife and I talked about it all the way back to Blanco.”
“We would have paid money to go to it!”
They didn’t pay for it, of course; the day-long class in helping people with disabilities in disasters was free, taught by the American Red Cross, in cooperation with the Blanco County Disaster Response Group and hosted by the Liberty Lighthouse Fellowship.
“The course name says ‘disasters,’” said instructor Jeanette Davolt of San Antonio, “but everything we teach about serving people with handicaps works for anyone, any time, anywhere.”
And the first thing she taught was not to make assumptions about a disabled person’s needs or abilities. It’s the biggest barrier to providing meaningful help, she said, and the easiest to remedy: ask questions.
“Do you need help?” “What do you need?” “How can I help you?”
Tommy Levitt was there in a dual role, both as a student and as a teacher’s aide. A panel of students had to interview him to learn what special accommodations he would need (and what he could do for himself) in an emergency.
“When you’re in a wheelchair all day long, personal hygiene becomes very important. I really want a shower or a bath every day, even in a disaster,” he explained. “Perhaps especially in a disaster.”
He and the panel, faced with a shelter that had no showers, compromised on a sponge bath.
“But Tommy is almost too easy,” Davolt said. “You see his wheelchair and immediately know a lot about his needs and what to expect from him.”
So she threw the class a curve — rather, six curves — real therapy patients with cognitive disabilities — PTSD, autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder. They had volunteered to help her teach the course by revealing their personal problems and fears to help the class learn to help people like themselves.
They explained not only what their handicaps were like, but what helped and what made them worse, what problems they might present under stressful conditions, and how to help them avoid becoming problems for disaster responders.
“I’m fine as long as I take my medications,” one explained, “but without them I can become a problem. Two days without meds and I may go into a real manic meltdown.”
Lesson: find out what meds they need, and help get refills.
Meeting real people face-to-face also broke down barriers for the class members, most of whom knew people with mental issues only from TV shows and movies.
They learned people with disabilities develop mechanisms to cope with their problems day-to-day, but, when those coping techniques are disrupted, the help they need is different from the average survivor.
One of Levitt’s coping mechanisms, for example, is a car with hand-controls instead of foot-pedals. However, if his car floods out, he loses his mobility; he can’t just go drive another car.
Similarly, the interviewee with obsessive-compulsive disorder said that under stress he would fixate on his dog and need to keep his dog nearby. But pets aren’t allowed in shelters; support animals are, but where’s the line between them and pets?
A good shelter manager will know in advance where he’ll draw that line, but would a restaurant manager? A bus-driver?
Would they even recognize that there is more to it than just a guy who wants to bring his dog in?
The main lesson the class learned is that people with disabilities don’t want to make problems for those trying to help them. They want to help you help them.
And the best way to find out how to do that is the simplest: just ask.