Here at FEMA we’re committed to the “Whole Community” approach to emergency management which Administrator Fugate initiated when he arrived. For those of you that haven’t heard of the Whole Community concept, it basically says that FEMA can’t manage emergencies by ourselves; we need to make sure that we’re including the private sector, community organizations, faith-based organizations, state local, and tribal government, the general public, non-profits, schools, our partners in other federal agencies, and almost any other group you can think of. One specific part of the Whole Community idea that we’re really working on is integrating the needs of people with access and functional needs in an inclusive setting and to accomplish this, we’re working collaboratively with our community partners who can bring resources, skills, and expertise to the table. To support this effort Administrator Fugate created the Office of Disability Integration & Coordination and positions like mine, as the Regional Disability Integration Specialist here in the Region III office in Philadelphia.
A large part of my job is making sure that the access and functional needs of people with disabilities are addressed in an inclusive manner, as well as making connections between emergency managers and disability leaders. So I want to tell you a little bit about an exciting project we are participating in with our community partners.
On June 28th, 2013 I went to the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Red Cross office where they held a Shelter Sleepover Exercise. The point of the exercise was to test their ability to provide services and support to people with access and functional needs in a general shelter. There were volunteers from the local community, many of whom are active with the Functional Needs Subcommittee of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Regional Task Force.
They asked me to give an overview of effective communication, so I gave a demonstration on the equipment that we now have in our Disaster Recovery Centers (DRC). This equipment can also be used in other settings so that people with access and functional needs can get the same information as everyone else and get it in their preferred method of communication. FEMA now has 175 accessible communication kits that are used to provide effective communication access in every DRC.
While this technology gives us many new options to communicate more effectively, it was pointed out by one of the shelter ‘clients’ that sometimes a skilled person who can interpret and provide information is needed too. We realize that having trained and knowledgeable shelter staff and access to on-site interpreters, scribes, and personal care attendants is just as important to providing effective and accessible services. FEMA can offer these services to the state, during a Presidentially-declared disaster, if requested. By having exercises like this one, both the shelter clients and the shelter volunteers get the opportunity to learn what works, what doesn’t, what may be available and we’re able to find solutions, together, to make the shelter experience truly inclusive and accessible.
One of the things that I found very impressive about this exercise is that it was a good example of the saying “nothing about us, without us” that we use a lot in the advocacy movement when we talk about planning services for people with disabilities. Shelter Sleep Over and other activities in Region III are an example of embracing that philosophy and we are looking forward to many more collaborative learning experiences.