Australians across the country have faced a harrowing start to this year's bushfire season, with houses lost, lives lost, towns blanketed in smoke and billions of animals killed.
Just like other residents in these areas those with a disability have been faced with evacuations and the loss of housing.
Jeff Smith, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of People with Disability Australia (PWDA) says “people with disability, alongside many other Australians, have been affected by the devastating series of bushfires burning across the country.”
“We know that many have had to leave accessible homes, and have lost essential aids and equipment.”
With a change in weather the immediate threat of fires has diminished, however reality is that the bushfire season is far from over and changes in weather and circumstances can happen quite rapidly.
Australian fire authorities urge the general community to prepare and plan for bushfires early and to make sure they are prepared to leave if required.
Research from the United Nations shows that only 20% of people with a disability could evacuate immediately and without difficulty, in the event of a sudden disaster like a bushfire.
Planning for the future
People who have a disability face additional challenges in the event of natural disaster with accessing information, evacuating safely, and the loss of aids and equipment, which may impact their ability to plan and prepare for a bushfire disaster.
As fires still burn across parts of the country, in others the recovery effort has begun. With the recovery effort, comes planning for the next natural disaster or bushfire season.
Bushfire and natural disaster planning that includes measures and advice for people with disability may be the solution in the future to ensure those with a disability are able to prepare and survive disasters despite barriers.
Mr Smith says that the unique challenges and barriers faced by those with a disability in a disaster situation only strengthens the argument for a National Disability Disaster plan.
“We need a National Disability Disaster plan, developed by people with disability, that includes everything we need to know about bushfires, floods and any other disaster. Climate change means that there will be more frequent and severe disasters, and we can’t be left behind.”
A spokesperson from the New South Wales (NSW) Department of Communities and Justice agrees saying that “to overcome these barriers it is essential that the voices of people with a disability are heard and they are included in disaster risk management”.
Research is already being undertaken in NSW to include and minimise risk to those who have a disability in disaster situations.
The spokesperson adds “the NSW Government is [a] funding partner for a three-year Australian Research Council project which is examining how best to assist people with disabilities in disasters, what their support needs are and how they might help themselves to better prepare for disasters.”
“This research aims to save lives and prevent injury for people with disabilities when disasters strike.”
It is not just planning for a disaster that those with a disability need to be heard but in the recovery efforts as well.
The national recovery effort began with the announcement of a National Bushfire Recovery Agency by Prime Minister Scott Morrison on 6 January 2020 to lead and coordinate a national response to rebuilding communities affected by bushfires across large parts of Australia.
Mary Mallett, CEO of Disability Advocacy Network Australia (DANA) says “the newly announced National Bushfire Recovery Agency needs to provide urgent funding for disability advocacy and information services in bushfire affected regions both now, to deal with the emergency, and for the longer term recovery.”
Catherine McAlpine, CE of, Inclusion Australia agrees that recovery, as well as disaster planning, needs to include those with a disability.
“People with a disability must have a seat at the table now, and into the future so that our expertise can be part of planning the enormous recovery effort that is now underway.”
Providing assistance and information when it is needed
One of the best ways to make sure you are prepared for a bushfire in your area is to stay informed.
Refer to your local fire authority for the most up to date and reliable information, as well as any radio updates.
Advocacy organisations have also been playing a key role in keeping people with disability informed and providing supports for those who have been impacted.
Ms Mallett says “disability advocacy services have been playing a vital role in their communities during the bushfires, working on the ground tirelessly in evacuation centres, and connecting people with disability with the supports they need.”
“Disaster-related communications, in particular, have to be accessible for all people with disability, including people with intellectual disability.”
NDIS Information for consumers
If you have been impacted by fires in your state and you need help with NDIS supports call 1800 800 110.
Bushfire affected NDIS participants will be prioritised to ensure they can continue to receive their disability-related supports, including any additional supports that may be required, such as urgently replacing equipment, additional care or therapies.
NDIS Information for providers
If you are a provider and have been contracted to deliver services to a participant immediately before, during or after the emergency.
The NDIS advises that you continue to deliver the services required and following the disaster contact the Contact Centre on 1800 800 110 or [email protected] and include Natural Disaster in the subject line. The NDIA will arrange for an urgent plan review post the disaster event”.
Providers delivering Support Coordination or other essential supports should continue to provide services and claim but should assist the participant in arranging a plan review by contacting the Contact Centre on 1800 800 110.
For more information for both consumers about the NDIS and support during the bushfire season or a disaster, including office closures click here