ALBANY, N.Y. – In an effort to better serve the needs of disaster survivors of all abilities, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is training its staff at its Albany Joint Field Office in disability awareness and sensitivity.
FEMA is committed to making sure all disaster survivors, regardless of ability, have access to all federal aid programs for which they qualify. Toward that end, FEMA has brought in advocates for people with disabilities to talk to staff about the challenges confronting these individuals and what FEMA can do to improve access to disaster assistance.
“It’s not always about the disability if you speak to the person first,” said John Dutcher of the Capital District Center for Independence, Inc., who uses a wheelchair himself. Dutcher explained that while technology has greatly diminished the challenges people with disabilities face, many continue to confront obstacles to independent living every day.
Barriers encountered include the physical and architectural -- Dutcher said even small architectural barriers can become big ones in an emergency for a person in a wheelchair. But the biggest obstacle of all for those of varying abilities is attitudinal. Dutcher said people fear doing or saying something wrong to a person with a disability and causing offense.
FEMA staffers were trained in the “Ten Commandments” of communicating with people with disabilities. These included speaking directly and making eye contact, shaking hands, identifying oneself, treating adults as adults, and respecting (not touching) a person’s wheelchair, cane or service dog.
FEMA staff heard presentations from Laurie Lichtel of the Capital District Center for Independence and from B. Madeleine Goldfarb, director of Noah’s Ark Institute in New Jersey. Lichtel reminded FEMA staff that over 50 million Americans – about 20 percent of the population – has a disability and that it is the one minority group that anyone could join at a moment’s notice. “You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” Lichtel said.
Goldfarb said people with autism may have a communication, not cognitive, disability. She instructed FEMA staff in the challenges faced by people with autism and how some behaviors associated with autism spectrum disorders might be expressed in a crisis situation. The prevalence of autism spectrum disorders in the U.S. is currently 1 in 110 and continues to rise, and anyone interacting with the public can expect to encounter autistic individuals, Goldfarb said.
Overall, the advocates urged FEMA staff to see all persons as individuals, regardless of their level of physical or cognitive ability and not to reinforce common myths and stereotypes about people with disabilities.
FEMA’s Disability Integration Specialist James Flemming said he is committed to integrating the needs of persons with disabilities into all phases of FEMA’s programs, which includes making sure FEMA’s written materials are accessible to all and available in Braille, in large print or in a digital format.
FEMA's mission is to support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain, and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards.