When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, thousands of people – including those with disabilities – were left stranded in the rising waters. For many people with disabilities, there was no means of accessible transportation out of the danger zone; shelters and trailers weren’t set up to accommodate them, and when it was all over many accessible homes had been damaged or destroyed.
Similar scenarios played out during Hurricane Rita in 2006 and elsewhere, where Americans with mobility, sensory and cognitive disabilities were unable to remove themselves from danger or were not afforded the same disaster protections as non-disabled people.
As we enter hurricane season once again, emergency preparedness is a cause for national concern. It’s an issue that the National Council on Disability (NCD), the federal agency that promotes equal opportunity policies for Americans with disabilities, has taken on in recent years – and does not take lightly.
On Wednesday the NCD submitted a 510-page report to President Obama with guidelines on emergency preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation for natural and other catastrophic disasters. Titled Effective Emergency Management: Making Improvements for Communities and People with Disabilities, the report provides an ocean of empirical evidence of a “major gap” in the availability and use of preparedness practices for people with disabilities in all types of emergencies.
When reading the detailed report, I found a few positive trends. The NCD says it believes, through its findings, that response times for helping people with disabilities has improved, thanks to stronger social networks like Twitter and Facebook. Also, following the Katrina disaster there has been a marked increase in training of emergency preparedness by agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The NCD’s report touches on many key disaster-planning topics that have either shown improvement or still need to be fixed. While there are too many to list, here are a few worth noting:
Find alternative ways of communicating: Developing new ways to communicate news is a top need, the NCD says. Hearing-impaired people, for instance, can’t rely on closed-captioned TV during a live coverage of an event. Similarly, blind people, who now rely more on TV instead of radio for information, are kept in the dark by TV’s reliance on graphics and crawling text. For the deaf and hearing-impaired, communications might include audio alerts, text messages, Internet information and social networking messages. In Oklahoma, an automated database called K-WARN sends out critical weather information to text pages and email addresses to the hearing-impaired and others.
Make evacuations more accessible: During a flood it can’t be expected that people will be able to salvage their wheelchairs. But under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which ensures access to the disabled in places of public accommodation, people should be able to get out in the event of a fire, terrorist attack, or other emergency. Still, evacuation methods haven’t been as good as the ADA intends. In one recent lawsuit, a wheelchair user sued the retailer Marshall’s for not being able to get out of the store during an emergency evacuation. Many people with mobility difficulties still experience negotiating the stairs of a fire escape during evacuation. Emergency planners need to work harder to make buildings and evacuation paths more accessible when danger is near.
Tweak policy: The NCD asked Obama to strengthen Presidential Executive Order 13347, which has been used as proof of federal support for disability and disaster issues. NCD says it believes this policy has led to positive trends, such as a push for inclusion, partnerships, and more comprehensive attention to disability and disaster issues. NCD would also like Obama to strengthen the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, by incorporating accessibility features into infrastructure projects and upgrading IT infrastructure at FEMA and other agencies to expand accessibility.
Create a registry. Local and state governments can create a telephone registry where people with disabilities can identify their needs. During an emergency, they will be contacted to ask about any extraordinary disaster-related needs and also be referred to existing resources. In 2008, New Jersey launched a “Register Ready” effort and has signed up more than 6,000 individuals through its website, telephone number 2-1-1 (including TTY service), and distribution of registration forms at emergency management offices.
Include more disabled groups. A 2004 Harris survey found that just over half of U.S. emergency managers had incorporated input from the disability community into their emergency plans. NCD says the inclusion of more disability organizations and individuals in disaster planning is a no-brainer, because these individuals know what the barriers are and how to overcome them. For example, after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the Associated Blind (a local service provider for low- and no-vision clients) worked with the New York City Fire Department to develop a building evacuation plan and drill for its staff, most of whom have limited or no vision. On September 11, 2001, their efforts paid off as the entire staff calmly and safely evacuated the building’s ninth floor.
Ultimately, when danger approaches, the NCD says everyone — including people with disabilities — is personally responsible for his or her own safety. This report is an excellent primer for a national discussion on emergency planning, and a somber reminder that when a nation comes together in times of a catastrophic event, people with disabilities must not get left out.