Braille Monitor                                                 March 2011

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When Disability Is Just a Special Skill in Disguise

by Lori Rottenberg

From the Editor: After 9/11 I got a number of letters asking if the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri was interested in identifying our members in various cities so they could be helped in the event of a disaster. These same letters invited suggestions from our organization about what emergency personnel could do to meet our needs most effectively. Never in any of the correspondence was there the suggestion that blind people could be a part of helping ourselves or others in times of emergency, so it is refreshing to see that a blind person is an active participant in the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) which is a part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under the Department of Homeland Security. This article is taken from the CERT national newsletter for January 2011:

One of the most challenging moments of CERT Basic Training in Greenbelt, Maryland, comes when participants have to find their way in complete darkness during a maze-like search-and-rescue exercise. But for CERT coordinator Ken Silberman finding his way in the dark is no big deal.

Silberman, an engineer and patent attorney who works for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), has been blind since birth. He first read an article in his local newspaper in 2005 that advertised the formation of a new CERT program in his area. “The article said everyone was welcome and that there were no age or physical requirements, so I went because I was interested in learning disaster skills that would help me and my neighbors.”

Silberman said his instructors were nervous at first about having him in the course but did allow him to participate. To prepare for the class, Silberman downloaded the participant manual from the national FEMA Website ahead of time and arranged transportation to the training site with some friends. Once he got to the class, sighted classmates helped him read any handouts that were not covered in his downloaded materials.

Silberman said the rest of the training posed little problem for someone without sight. During the fire extinguisher exercise, for example, he simply pointed the extinguisher at the heat he felt from the fire and swept it back and forth. The shutoffs for circuit breakers and gas and water valves were also easy to distinguish by touch alone, he said. Even real blood would be warm and sticky through the gloves, so he felt that not being able to see a victim’s injuries would also not be an issue.

Nonetheless, Silberman said he "Wasn’t accepted that much" until the search-and-rescue activity. “Blindness skills proved invaluable in the search-and-rescue phase of the training when we had to traverse a pitch black, multi-story maze and apartment, looking for victims. There was a lot of panic due to disorientation. However, it was business as usual for me. So I ended up leading the operation. The instructors and students accepted me after that.”

Silberman so enjoyed the CERT experience that he continued to take more advanced training as well as leadership roles within the group. During an advanced training session on helping with emergencies in the Washington, D.C., underground Metrorail system, Silberman’s special skills again proved invaluable. “I had no trouble and used sighted assistance when near the power rail,” he said. "Blindness skills were critical during a fire simulation in a Metrorail car. I was able to cut right through the smoke, grab the emergency kit from under the seat, and direct people to the door at the end of the car. The transit police were very supportive after that.”

Silberman’s commitment to and enthusiasm for CERT paid off. In August 2010 he was elected by his fellow CERT members to be the new coordinator of the Greenbelt CERT, making him the nation’s first blind CERT coordinator. In this position he deals with the same issues that other CERT coordinators handle, from marketing the program to new members to providing ongoing training opportunities for existing members to practice their skills. However, Silberman also hopes his work will help transform the way people with disabilities are perceived.

“It’s an opportunity to change people’s views,” said Silberman. “I hope that my experiences will expand the discussion of disabilities and disaster preparedness to go beyond caring for persons who have disabilities.” He would like to see people with disabilities viewed as potential service providers rather than just service recipients in times of disasters. "This will prevent responders from diverting their attention from victims to persons with disabilities who are quite capable of taking care of themselves," he noted. "Second, a pool of talented and capable volunteers who have disabilities shouldn’t be ignored or underused. In a real disaster, all hands will be needed on deck."

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