July 26, 2012 marks the 22nd anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This law protects the civil rights of more than 56 million Americans, or 20 percent of the population, who have physical, mobility, hearing, vision, speech, and cognitive, intellectual and mental health disabilities. Since the ADA was signed, many improvements have been made to eliminate barriers for people with disabilities; however, many still face obstacles that limit their health, safety and independence, especially in the midst of unexpected emergencies, or even worse, catastrophic events.
FEMA is working to ensure equal opportunity for children and adults with disabilities and others who also have access and functional needs. Our mission extends to the whole community as we support our citizens and first responders to improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards. FEMA is committed to integrating and coordinating emergency management practices that include the expertise of individuals with access and functional needs. This means equal access to preparedness activities and programs without discrimination, meeting the access and functional needs of individuals, and consistent and active engagement in all aspects of emergency planning.
Marcie Roth, FEMA’s Office of Disability Integration and Coordination Director, envisions equal access as:
- Everyone actively participating in exercises that test the capability and procedures of a community in the event of an emergency or disaster with needed accommodations provided.
- Accessible transportation during an evacuation and restoring transportation accessibility after a disaster as a part of restoring the essential services needed by the whole community.
- People with disabilities having the tools and resources to maintain their health, safety and independence in a shelter.
- The whole community having access to effective communication including Sign Language interpreters, assistive listening devices, CART, materials in large print or Braille, TTY and video relay services and being sure to use plain language; equal access also means people receiving emergency alerts, warnings, and important messages that are accessible to them. . Information has to be accessible to be actionable.
- Meeting the accessible housing needs of disaster survivors and addressing the recovery needs of the whole community so that children with disabilities go back to school with their peers and adults with disabilities go back to work along with their co-workers.
- A career path in emergency management as accessible to workers with disabilities as it is to workers without disabilities.
FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said, “It is time children, people with disabilities or any other segment of our communities who have traditionally been underserved, to be more fully and consistently integrated into preparedness and planning efforts at every level of government.” When communities integrate the access and functional needs of children and adults with and without disabilities in all phases of community-wide emergency management, they strengthen their resilience and capability to prepare.
Since opening the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination in 2010, FEMA has been building bridges toward inclusive emergency management by:
- Expanding our team in the 10 FEMA regions by including Regional Disability Integration Specialists who increase our capacity to serve the whole community. They also serve as advisors to states and FEMA’s leadership team in an effort to ensure that access and functional needs and rights of individuals with disabilities are being properly included and addressed in all aspects of emergency preparedness and disaster response, recovery and mitigation. Our Regional Disability Specialists have deployed to more than 35 disasters since coming on board.
- Training emergency managers, shelter planners, and states to provide better functional needs support services throughout the nation. We provide the tools and strategies for accommodating individuals with disabilities and others with access and functional needs in general population shelters during emergencies.
- Providing universal cots replacing standard military cots in general population shelters. Military cots are low to the ground, narrow and easy to tip. Recognizing that the cots are not useful for many people, we are replacing them with wider, sturdier universal cots. Also, the removable hand rails make it easier for people who use wheelchairs to transfer from their wheelchair to a cot.
- Partnering with the National Council on Independent Living and its 450 Independent Living Centers to assist people at FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers with access and functional needs following a disaster.
- Partnering with the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) and their 57 state Protection and Advocacy Agencies to ensure that the needs of people with disabilities, young children, seniors, and all members of the community are fully integrated into emergency planning efforts. NDRN is now involved in policy decisions and coordinates directly with the entire emergency management team.
- Hosting two nationwide conferences, Getting Real; Inclusive Emergency Management National Capacity Building Conference and Getting Real II; Promising Practices for Inclusive Emergency Management. Both events brought together inclusive emergency management teams from across the nation to share strategies, tools, and resources for engaging the whole community in emergency preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation.
According to Administrator Fugate, “We don’t plan for easy in FEMA…we plan for real.” And we encourage everyone, including people with disabilities, to plan for their welfare in the event of a disaster or emergency. To learn more, visit the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination at www.fema.gov/about/odic and FEMA’s Ready website at www.ready.gov for step-by-step information on how to prepare for disasters.