Laura Szweda, a Disability Integration Specialist with Abilities in Motion, has been deployed with the American Red Cross for the second time to support the response efforts to Hurricane Dorian in Florida. She was last deployed to southern Texas, and then to Louisiana, to assist with flooding relief efforts in early July. Laura, who has been blind for nearly two decades, will advocate for individuals with disabilities.
Laura is a regional team member with the American Red Cross Tri-County Chapter Disability Integration Program. Her role as a disability integration specialist is to educate and advocate for more inclusive planning with organizations and community members regarding emergency readiness and preparedness, which ties directly to her role at Abilities in Motion. Throughout her deployment, Laura and her team conduct disability integration shelter surveys to make sure that the shelters and their activities are inclusive and accessible for anyone with an access or functional need.
“What they’re anticipating, and what’s already going on now, is shelters are open, and they are receiving clients coming into the shelters because everybody is prepping, leaving their homes—or staying, depending on what their choices are,” she said in a phone interview. “So basically we’re down here to make sure everything is ready for them, and they are independent and maintain their same lifestyles while in the shelter.”
Shelters that her team has surveyed are ready, according to Laura. She’ll be deployed for a minimum of two weeks, but it depends on when and where the hurricane hits. She said that most of the impact of Dorian in Florida has been related to problems with flooding from a season of heavy rain, where the ground is saturated, flat, and can’t hold much more water, so more flooding is expected as the hurricane brings in heavy precipitation. As Hurricane Dorian moves north, Laura may be relocated to another disaster area with a greater need in Georgia or the Carolinas.
Laura says that right now in Florida there are only evacuation shelters, which are expecting short term stays, but if it turns into something more long term, then the team needs to make sure they set up video relays and other accessible technology in the shelter. In the meantime, shelters keep popping up, so Laura’s team will go around and check for ADA compliance, but right now they’re just waiting to see what the storm will do.
Individuals with disabilities navigating emergencies may face additional barriers to accessibility. Laura recalled individuals in the shelter in Texas that lost their electric wheelchairs due to the flooding, and how she helped them acquire the documents they needed to get new wheelchairs. The disability integration team also advocates for people with dietary issues and has sensory kits on hand to give to people experiencing anxiety or children with autism.
When asked whether she’s facing any barriers while on deployment, she said, “Well, I’m always going to have barriers with things, unfortunately. In some aspects some of the technology may not be there. I do not have my guide dog here with me so I’m caning, and I do rely a lot more on a sighted guide, which for me is interesting because I like being independent.”
Laura is grateful for the opportunity to pursue her passion. “I’m appreciative number one, because I have family that supports me, and number two because I also have Abilities in Motion who is supporting me and letting me be able to do the things that I like to do, which is my passion for emergency readiness and preparedness, and advocating and educating and being out there making sure that everybody is maintaining their independence and is safe during disasters and emergencies.”
One idea that she’d like to bring back with her to Pennsylvania following this experience is more widespread education on emergency readiness through PSA broadcasts. “What’s fascinating in Florida, and even in Texas, is since they’ve been through so many hurricanes, they run TV commercials about being prepared for weather,” she said. “Down here there is the mentality of being prepared, not just when hurricanes are coming around.”
Laura stressed the need for taking emergency readiness and preparedness seriously. “Make sure you don’t have the attitude of ‘It won’t happen to me’ because the way things are going now, it absolutely can happen, as more and more disasters are happening that you need to be prepared for.”
The camaraderie among Red Cross volunteers in the shelters where Laura has worked has gone a long way in creating a comfortable atmosphere in the shelter environment. “You do become a family,” she said of other Red Cross volunteers on deployment, many whom she’d met while deployed in Texas and Louisiana.
“It’s all about the common goal of everybody’s here to do what’s best for humanity and for other people in need.” Laura has long been active in emergency response, working as an EMT before she lost her sight in 2000. While at Abilities in Motion, Laura has led an effort to expand awareness of the special needs of individuals with disabilities during emergency situations, meeting with and training local emergency providers.
“We are proud to have Laura on the front lines in these emergency situations,” said Stephanie Quigley, Executive Director at Abilities in Motion. “She is advocating for people with disabilities, and that is at the core of what we do as an organization. Much like disability, Mother Nature does not discriminate, and so wherever disaster strikes we are fortunate to support Laura in her efforts to provide disability education to those running emergency shelters.”