Persons With Disabilities

Persons With Disabilities and Disaster-Related StressGeneral Public Image - Persons with Disabilities

Persons with disabilities need to be aware not only of how a disability may influence response to a disaster, and but how disaster-related stress may affect disabilities.  

  • Stress in response to trauma such as disasters is normal.
  • Stress is felt and experienced as a variety of emotions, including confusion, grief, anger, and sadness.
  • Everyone experiences stress differently, and we experience different stress in response to different disasters. A person’s way of experiencing stress depends both on what happened and on what meaning the person gives to those events.
  • We experience stress differently through different phases of disasters.

Disaster-related stress occurs in several phases:

  • The initial impact phase, in which the focus is on survival
  • The immediate post-disaster phase, in which we recoil from the effects of the disaster and begin to make sense of it
  • The recovery phase, a sometimes-lengthy period of adjustment in the return to normal that the community and individuals must go through.

There are some ways in which stress may happen differently for persons with disabilities.  In preparing for and responding to a disaster, consider how your disability may influence your way of responding to stress in general, and how might it influence your way of responding to a disaster.  Some dimensions along which stress may occur include:

Loss of control: A common element in disability is some loss of control over circumstances, over others, and even over one’s body.  Many disasters present even greater threat of loss of control, and it is important to anticipate and manage disaster-related stress accordingly.

Loss of resources: Similarly, many disabilities result in losses in income, interpersonal losses in terms of relationships within the family, workplace, and internal losses in self-esteem, self-efficacy, and energy.  Many of these losses may be worsened by the experience of disaster.

Role changes: The roles we carry out form the basis of much of our self image. Even temporary loss of function can mean an alteration in the roles we can carry out, and sometimes disasters can unbalance and disrupt the way that persons with disabilities have modified and reshaped their roles. 

Changes in mood:   Disasters often result in changes of emotion in which people may feel nervous, anxious, angry, or depressed. Also common are irritability and rapid mood swings, which often result in outbursts toward family, friends and coworkers. Guilt feelings are also possible, especially if a person lost a loved one in the disaster. Some people may wish they had taken the place of their loved one or been there with that person.  Persons with disabilities may have some similar responses to their disabilities, or their disabilities may influence their way of experiencing mood and emotion.

Physical symptoms:  People experiencing disaster may report physical symptoms such as headaches, fatigue and pains, and increased anxiety. High levels of stress can weaken the immune system, which can lead to increases in illness.  It is important to take into account how physical disabilities may affect and be affected by stress.

Changes in sleeping, eating, and daily routines:Disasters inevitably disrupt elements of our daily routines.  People with disabilities, many of whom have already had to adjust daily living to accommodate their disabilities, may experience additional stress with disasters that disrupt these patterns of adjustment and require new ones. Being aware of these additional stressors as they relate to disasters can help us maintain perspective and avoid additional complications.


Web Links

Americans with Disabilities Act homepage has numerous important resources for people with disabilities.  Concerns regarding legal rights, enforcement, accessibility and more can be answered here.