In light of the recent 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck New Zealand's South Island on Monday, November 14th, and the 6.9-magnitude earthquake that struck Japan's Honshu Island on Tuesday, November 22nd, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) extends its heartfelt sympathy to all those affected by the initial tremor and aftershocks. To help people with visual impairments, especially older people with vision loss, prepare for similar situations, AFB would like to share a few disaster-preparedness tips from an article that will appear in the forthcoming special issue of the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness (JVIB) on aging and vision.

Older man sitting on a wooden bench with his cane in hand, and labrador retriever dog, in a park

Authors Gretchen A. Good and Suzanne Phibbs, from the School of Public Health at Massey University in New Zealand, and Kerry Williamson, from the New Zealand Ministry of Justice, report on a series of interviews they conducted with mainly older people with visual impairments who lived in areas affected by the 7.1-magnitude earthquake that occurred in 2010 and series of deadly aftershocks that happened in the year following the initial event centered around Christchurch on the South Island.

With the majority of research into disasters focusing on the restoration of communities, the JVIB article represents the first study of its kind to explore disaster preparedness for individuals with visual impairments. Participants talked about how their own personal networks rather than agencies offered support to them immediately following the disaster, "I think somebody should have checked on disabled people...some official, if you follow my point," said one individual.

Getting around represented a significant struggle after roads and walkways were destroyed by the tremors, resulting in disrupted public transportation. As one participant explained, "If you use a dog guide, people seem to have the impression that they are magicians and they can put you off at the wrong bus stop if they've gone past your stop and your dog's magically going to know where it is. Well, it doesn't work that way...." Once-confident dog guides "had to be comforted, retrained, and assessed as to their abilities to cope as working dogs after the earthquakes." One participant recalled how her own dog guide reacted following the quake, "Oh, the dog, the poor dog...he was shivering. He shook until about 10 o'clock the next morning; he just shook."

In addition to relaying personal accounts of the hurdles that individuals with vision loss experienced in the hours, days, and months following the disasters, the authors provide a list of 17 practical tips for disaster preparedness gleaned from practitioners with various job roles in the field of vision loss and visually impaired people themselves, some of which include:

  • have at least two people organized to contact you following a disaster
  • keep your shoes under your bed, keep a flashlight on the doorknob, and have spare white canes available
  • have a transistor radio and batteries at hand
  • dog guide users should keep cane skills sharpened: in a disaster, your dog may become lost, injured, or traumatized, and may not be able to help you
  • remember that GPS [Global Positioning System] may not be helpful after an earthquake

These and more tips for surviving after a disaster are available in the article, "Disoriented and Immobile: The Experiences of People with Visual Impairments During and After the Christchurch, New Zealand, 2010 and 2011 Earthquakes," by Gretchen A. Good, Suzanne Phibbs, and Kerry Williamson, which will be available to JVIB subscribers and for purchase in the coming weeks. For more information, visit the JVIB home page at JVIB.org.

We hope you've found this information helpful. JVIB is the journal of record for the field of visual impairment that has been in continuous publication since 1907 and has been published by AFB since its inception. Please consider subscribing to JVIB, the essential professional resource for information about visual impairment and blindness, or making a donation today to support AFB's information, programs, and research.