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Three Questions about Inclusive Emergency Preparedness for People With Disabilities

September 29, 2016
Rohmteen Mokhtari and Meredith Raymond, ACL Office of External Affairs

Photo of Don't Wait. Communicate.  Make Your Emergency Plan Today.

As National Preparedness Month comes to a close, we are reminded of the importance of making emergency planning efforts inclusive of people of all ages and abilities as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. ACL interviewed two disability community leaders working to ensure that people with disabilities are included in emergency preparedness efforts.

Curt Decker is the Executive Director of the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN), a membership organization representing Protection and Advocacy Systems and the Client Assistance Programs for individuals with disabilities. Christy Dunaway is the Chair of Emergency Preparedness Sub-Committee of the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL). NCIL is a membership organization representing individuals with disabilities, Centers for Independent Living (CILs), Statewide Independent Living Councils and other organizations. NCIL and NDRN both have had Memoranda of Understanding with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Office of Disability Integration and Coordination (ODIC).

What does an inclusive approach to emergency preparedness look like to you?

Decker: At NDRN, we often talk about how Hurricane Katrina taught us everything we now know about how to prepare for emergencies. Ten years ago, evacuation systems weren't accessible for people with all types of access and functional needs. As a result, service animals were lost in the process, and some people with disabilities were left behind. Shelters established during recovery were not set up to accommodate people with disabilities. When this happens, some end up going without necessary, life-sustaining assistive technology, durable medical equipment, and medications. People with disabilities get turned away from shelters and routed to nursing homes and institutions that can be easy to get into and difficult to get back out of.

That time in our country's history taught us that inclusive emergency preparedness means using a "baked in" approach. People with access and functional needs have to be considered in every phase and every aspect of the planning process. When inclusion is an afterthought tacked on to an established process, we typically find that systems are not designed to effectively serve all citizens.

Dunaway: An inclusive approach to emergency preparedness should include members of the disability community in all aspects of emergency management. Emergency management is more than preparedness; it is also mitigation, response, short-term recovery, and long-term recovery.

Preparing the community for an emergency takes planning. People with disabilities should be included on task forces that are developing best practices, policy and procedure and included in emergency preparedness exercises.

State and local government entities responsible for emergency preparedness must take the initiative and reach out to members of the disability community in their local area to include them in all preparedness activities.

Individuals with disabilities are experts in the programs and services needed to allow for their independence in the event of an emergency. Planning without their input is planning for failure.

What do you see as your networks' role in preparing for and responding to an emergency?

Decker: We believe that emergency managers are truly the experts in what it takes to prepare for emergencies. No one knows more about evacuation routes, technical specifications required of a shelter, and all of the preparations that must be made prior to an emergency. Yet, we also believe that our network and people with disabilities are the experts in disability. No one knows more about what people with disabilities need than actual people with disabilities, in all aspects of life.

We see our network's role as forging strong partnerships with emergency managers in blue skies so that we can bring our two spheres of expertise together to plan adequately and inclusively for everyone, as well as to work together quickly and effectively during an emergency.

This often means participating in national, state, and local collaborations for emergency preparedness, surveying shelters for accessibility and helping to select shelter locations, identifying service providers for people with disabilities that can be activated during an emergency, and assisting with case management and identifying/providing resources for people with disabilities during an emergency.

Dunaway: In recent years, our networks have become increasingly involved in emergency management.

NCIL has an Emergency Preparedness Sub-Committee whose purpose is to address the need for people with disabilities to be involved in the development, assessment, and implementation of emergency preparedness in all stages of a disaster. The subcommittee has developed best practices and suggestions for CILs on becoming more involved with emergency management. The subcommittee has also negotiated Memoranda of Understanding with national response organizations, and is available to facilitate access to services needed in the event of a disaster.

What's one thing that people with disabilities can do to be more prepared for an emergency?

Decker: Our emergency management systems have a very real obligation to practice inclusive preparedness, so that they are equipped to accommodate everyone during an emergency situation. We cannot stress enough that being prepared starts with our emergency management systems fulfilling this commitment to all Americans. That said, everyone (regardless of their ability or disability) should make a plan for emergency situations. The Individuals with Disabilities and Others with Access and Functional Needs page at has a wealth of information and tools assembled by FEMA ODIC to help you make a plan for emergency, and NDRN encourages everyone to check it out.

Dunaway: Individuals with disabilities must understand that the first 72 hours immediately following a disaster are chaotic. They must plan to meet their own needs to the extent possible. Services offered such as evacuation, sheltering, and mass care, are required to be accessible to people with disabilities, but that does not necessarily mean they will be.

The first and most important aspect of being prepared is to have a plan. Questions you should consider include:

  • Where will you go if you need to evacuate?

  • Will you need a caregiver with you?

  • What supplies will you need to have with you to be self-sufficient for three days if necessary?

  • Who will know your plan? Family? Neighbors? Friends?

You should also have an emergency "go kit" ready that includes what you will need to be self-sufficient for three days. This includes basics such as food, water, flashlight, batteries, and a weather radio, but it must also include items needed for you and your specific disability, including medications (if refrigeration is needed, make sure you have a cold pack ready), and supplies for you and your service animal if you have one (food, medications, water, toys).

You should also know where the closest accessible shelters are located. If possible, check them out if possible during "blue skies" when there is not a disaster. Take any equipment you will needs with you, i.e., shower chair, mobility devices, etc. and determine beforehand what you will need with you and think about how you will transport it. Make transportation arrangements beforehand and have a backup plan in place.

Plan. Backup Plan. Backup to the backup plan.

As with all guest contributions to the ACL website, the responses in this blog reflect the experiences and thoughts of the authors. Learn more about guest content on the ACL site.

Last modified on 05/07/2020

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