FORT MCPHERSON, Ga. -- Every October we observe National Disability Employment Awareness Month to recognize the talents, skills and dedication of Americans with disabilities who are a vital part of our workforce. During this month, we reaffirm our commitment to ensure people with disabilities who want to work can and that they receive the training they need to achieve their goals. During this month, we should also take the time to recognize what needs to be done to ensure that all of our employees, family members and friends with disabilities are well prepared to effectively handle themselves in an emergency situation, both at work and at home.

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and other past disasters have increased awareness worldwide of the need to be prepared for emergencies. The attacks prompted many individuals responsible for people in office buildings to re-evaluate their disaster and evacuation plans for all occupants, including taking a close look at how to get people with disabilities out of harm's way.

In a major emergency, everyone is confronted with a wide range of disabling conditions; for people who already have physical disabilities, these conditions are often multiplied.

People with physical disabilities may have a harder time getting to exits and accessing their personal items and emergency supplies. People with vision and hearing loss and speech-related disabilities may encounter many more communication barriers, especially when regular communication channels are down or overloaded.

These barriers may appear at a time when rapid communication is crucial to survival and safety. Because of this, it is imperative that disaster planning is integrated into your everyday life, not just for those individuals who have disabilities, but also for those who work and live with people with disabilities.

It's important to start preparing now. The more you prepare, the more confident you will be that you can protect yourself and others. If you or someone close to you has a disability or special need, you should make special preparations in case of an emergency. To adequately prepare for every possible emergency situation, consider making the following arrangements:

-- Check for hazards in your home and workplace. During and after a disaster, ordinary items in the home and workplace can cause injury or damage. Anything that can move, fall, break or cause fire is a hazard.

-- Discuss your needs with family members, neighbors, coworkers and those who manage your office or apartment.

-- Prepare any instructions you need to give rescuers or others who may be around you. Use concise verbal directions or carry written instructions with you at all times. Practice giving these instructions.

-- Make sure those around you know how to operate any necessary equipment and where it is stored. Label equipment and attach instructions as a backup.

--Have a list with the types and models of any equipment or devices you need.

-- If you use electrical equipment, plan how you will deal with a power outage. For example, keep a manual wheelchair for use if your electrical wheelchair becomes inoperable.

-- Know of more than one medical facility that provides the services you need.

-- Add necessary supplies, such as wheelchair batteries, catheters, oxygen, medication, food for service animals and other special provisions to your emergency kit.

-- If you are physically disabled, study the evacuation procedure of any building from which you might evacuate. If necessary, know if and where an evacuation chair is located, and make sure several others know how to operate it.

-- If you are hard of hearing or visually impaired, arrange for someone to communicate essential information to you during an emergency.

-- If you are military or government personnel, once you are in a safe place, report to your command.

Don't assume that you or your loved ones have been factored into an evacuation procedure. Let others know of your specific requirements. This is why practice is so important; it increases skill and instills confidence in your ability to be prepared, self-sufficient and even take on a leadership position in evacuating yourself and others during an emergency.

Disaster planning needs to be integrated into our everyday lives. There is a natural human inclination to avoid thinking about negative things, but this avoidance is detrimental to our well-being and has even greater consequences for people with disabilities should an emergency occur. Don't wait until it's too late - your actions now could save lives later.