Katrina and Disability – The Work of Claudia Gordon

One of the great pleasures of my summer was meeting and interviewing Claudia Gordon. She works for the labor department now, but ten years ago she was at the Office of Homeland Security, her attention focused on people with disabilities in the aftermath of Katrina.

Her video, shared below, talks about her development in the wake of the ADA in developing a cross-disability identity and consciousness. It’s a fantastic video.

My piece that I wrote about her focused on Katrina. You can find the full bio here, by clicking over to “Claudia Gordon.” If you do, pause and read the others, as the people they profile are all amazing. I write against inspiration porn, in which we claim that disabled people doing everyday things (eating, breathing, tying shoes) are inspirational. But it’s ok to be inspired by people doing transformational work. If you can’t be inspired by Ed Roberts, as I said to Judy Heumann (who also inspires me!), something is wrong with you.

Here’s some of what I wrote about Gordon, Katrina, and disability after disaster.

It’s three weeks after Hurricane Katrina has hit New Orleans and Claudia Gordon is worried. From her perch at the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, she and her colleagues are working frantically to coordinate the emergency response for people with disabilities who were in the path of the brutal hurricane. But on the ground in Louisiana, there’s just too much one-size-fits-all thinking. People with disabilities are being abandoned, forgotten, or isolated from their families.

So Gordon — who is Deaf — and her sign-language interpreter, is deployed to Baton Rouge to spend approximately the next three months working with the response and recovery team out of the Joint Field Office. For Gordon, it’s all about making sure that people with disabilities have access to the same services as everyone else. She insists that contractors, NGOs, and local officials understand that people with disabilities “aren’t asking for favors, they’re asking for the same thing as people without disabilities.”

The problems she encounters are many. For example, Deaf people in the shelters can’t hear announcements, such as those telling them where to go to register for disaster-relief benefits. The travel trailers being transported in aren’t physically accessible for individuals who use wheelchairs or who might use walkers. For example, some are being installed on gravel, or are too narrow for someone in a wheelchair to turn around in, or have steps that are not wide enough for someone who uses a walker. They need ramps, larger mobile homes instead of the compact trailers, accessible sites on level ground, visual smoke alarms for Deaf individuals and audio alarms for the blind, and so much more.

Homed matter. No one with a disability should have to stay in a shelter or nursing home longer than those without disabilities. Alas, people without disabilities just don’t tend to think about these kinds of issues when planning for disasters. Or didn’t, anyway.

So Gordon gets to work. If a contractor promises to work 24/7 to build accessible mobile home sites, she makes a surprise visit to the work-site at 1 am. She explains the need for key accommodations. She uses diplomacy, data, reason, and, most of all, personal anecdotes to explain what has to happen and why. It’s the stories of specific families, rather than the abstract discussions of disabilities and needs, that persuades and motivates the relief workers.

The effort required for those 1 am visits to the job sites and the ruffling of feathers pays off. Gordon watches as the first five families in need leave the shelters for newly accessible mobile homes. A little girl in a wheelchair rolls up to an accessible sink, turns on the water, and smiles. Remembering that day, Gordon says, “We celebrated small victories as an indicator of progress.”

Gordon won an award for her service and, perhaps most importantly, participated in a process developing a set of regular procedures for how to serve people with disabilities in the face of disasters. In fact, that process began after 9/11, but wasn’t installed yet by the time of Katrina. It is now. Emergency management must include disability in their plans, and Gordon’s a big part of why the Federal government is doing better today, though surely there’s more work to be done.

Here’s her video.

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