Skip to main content

Mendo Lake Family Life

Disaster Prep for Families Coping with Disabilities

By Ashley Talmadge

As the parent of children with disabilities, you’re good at anticipating and preparing for the unexpected. When it comes to emergency preparedness, though, it’s important to take additional precautions. Follow these steps and take a few minutes each week to plan, add to your kit, and communicate with those who might care for your children.

Make a Family Plan
During a disaster, family members can easily become separated. By developing a plan and talking about it in advance, you ensure reunification will happen as quickly as possible.

Jessica Cappelletti, Red Cross preparedness specialist, says “It’s important to consider what the individual need is and incorporate it in your plan.” Is there a parent who is usually close enough to pick up a child at school? If not, which neighbor or friend could provide the specialized care a child might need? Also include contingencies for different types of emergencies. A fire or flood may necessitate evacuation, while a storm or chemical hazard may require sheltering in place. Where will you go in either case?

During a disaster, phone service may be inconsistent, and it’s often easier to connect to a long distance, rather than local, number. Therefore, Cappelletti suggests that families “ask an out-of-town friend or relative to be a point of contact.”

Build Your Emergency Kit
Ideally, families should build two types of emergency kits. A “go kit” contains supplies for at least three days and will be taken by each family member in the event of an evacuation. A “home kit” (usually several large bins) contains items required for the whole family during a “shelter in place” event for up to two weeks. Several basics—such as water, food, first aid and hygiene supplies, batteries, and flashlight—should be included. Visit for more information.

When your children have special needs, the following parts of your kit will require closer attention:

Food. If your children are on restricted diets, or have sensory issues that impact their desire to eat, be sure to stock your kit with nonperishable foods they can safely enjoy.

Medications. In addition to a seven-day backup supply of any necessary prescription medications, be sure to include over-the-counter items, such as melatonin or protein supplements, that your children regularly use. Include a medication list and copies of prescriptions.

Power backup. “A lot of medical equipment relies on power, so families who have special needs should consider a generator and subsequently a carbon monoxide alarm,” says Cappelletti. (A generator can be deadly when not used properly, so be sure you know how to operate it.) Remaining connected and informed is essential for families with special needs, so it’s worthwhile to stock a variety of portable chargers (already charged) for phones and other devices. Solar and battery-operated chargers are also available.

Adaptive equipment. Decide how your children will access any specialized items they use for feeding, mobility, self-care, or communication.
Comfort items. If possible, include some duplicates of familiar toys, books, and electronic activities your children use to calm themselves.

Practice Drills
Cappelletti notes that the unfamiliar sights, sounds, and expectations during an emergency can make any child anxious. The situation can be more challenging for children who have mobility limitations, sensory issues, or who need a predictable routine. “Children fear what is unknown,” says Cappelletti. “When drills are practiced, the family is getting equipped with confidence and the knowledge of what to do.”

Operate your smoke alarm, and rehearse your evacuation procedure in the dark. Try sheltering in place for a couple hours with battery-operated devices instead of electric power. Visit your neighborhood fire station and introduce your children to a firefighter in full gear. (Children who are not familiar with a firefighter’s uniform and equipment may hide from these first responders in an emergency.)

Expand Your Support Network
In addition to staff at your children’s school or daycare facility, be sure there are other people who are familiar with your children’s needs. If possible, exchange keys with a trusted neighbor; let her or him know where supplies and important documents are stored, and decide how you will contact each other if phone service is unavailable.

Know Your Community’s Disaster Plan
Local areas have developed disaster plans. For Mendocino County’s plan, including a Family Communication Plan, see For Lake County disaster preparedness resources, see

Notify local officials of your household’s needs in advance. This makes it easier for first responders to quickly provide assistance. And if you’re electricity-dependent, you can also register with PG&E’s Medical Baseline Program at

Ashley Talmadge is a freelance writer and mother of two boys.