Three Ways the Americans with Disabilities Act Supports Equity and Independence for People with Disabilities

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Linda Mastandrea, Director, Office of Disability Integration and Coordination, FEMA
Reyma McCoy McDeid, Executive Director, National Council on Independent Living

31st Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act: Celebrate. Learn. Share.

Last week, we commemorated the landmark signing of The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA provided a strong foundation for FEMA and our partners to work together to serve disaster survivors with disabilities and ensure equitable access to services and programs, while preserving and promoting the independence of people with disabilities.

Although much progress has been made, there is more we can do to live up to the law's promise of equal opportunities for all people. We’re committed to integrating the needs of people with disabilities into emergency preparedness, response and recovery programs around the nation, and we value the collaboration with disability stakeholders at the state, local, tribal and territorial levels that make it possible.

One of the themes for this year’s ADA celebration is independent living for people with disabilities. FEMA and the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) are focused on helping people with disabilities affected by disasters to return to communities that are accessible, where the supports and services they need are readily available and where they can live independently alongside family and friends.
NCIL and FEMA’s Office of Disability Integration and Coordination (ODIC) work together to create a path to independence for people with disabilities impacted by disasters.

Here are three ways the ADA lays the foundation for that path:

  1. The ADA expands the civil rights requirements contained in the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities by federal agencies and federally funded programs. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 built on that foundation, making sure that the protections afforded at the federal level were extended to the programs and services of state and local governments and other public entities. Title II of the ADA, among other things, ensures that people with disabilities impacted by disasters will have access to the same programs and services as others in their community as they prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters.

That’s one of the reasons why partnership between ODIC and disability-led organizations like NCIL is important. Because disaster response happens at the community level, and centers for independent living are community level organizations that have a deep understanding of local demographics, issues facing people with disabilities, and creative solutions for many of those issues.

All year long, FEMA’s Regional Disability Integration Specialists are available to work with the centers for independent living in their region on education and outreach to improve the ability of people with disabilities to prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters. And during active disasters, our Disability Integration Advisors work with NCIL and other disability-led organizations to make sure the needs of people with disabilities impacted by that disaster are being met.

  1. The ADA requires accessible transportation, public accommodations, communications and access to state and local government programs and services.

When a disaster happens, many systems are impacted. Housing. Transportation. Public Accommodations. Communications. Health Care. Access to vital government programs and services may be limited. Disability-led organizations like NCIL play a vital role in that planning, making sure that the programs, services and systems designed integrate the perspectives and lived experience of people with disabilities, resulting in better outcomes when disasters happen.

  1. The ADA addresses the need to include access and accommodations in all aspects of emergency preparedness, response and recovery for people with disabilities.

For example:

  • Accessible transportation to support evacuation of people with disabilities in emergency operations plans.
  • Modifying policies, practices and procedures and providing accommodations to enable people with disabilities to stay with their families or support networks in integrated shelters.
  • People who use personal assistance services may need guidance coordinating or receiving those services to be able to use local shelters.
  • People who are blind or have low vision can access emergency management and disaster related communications and materials in alternative formats, i.e., Braille, large print and audio.

The ADA requires state and local governments, businesses and nonprofit organizations to ensure that communication with people with disabilities is accessible and provides the same information that people without disabilities receive.

People cannot plan for or ensure their safety if they do not have the ability to receive real-time information about situations and options. Working with state, local, tribal and territorial governments to integrate the needs of people with disabilities into emergency management planning is important; through these efforts, we can understand how best to address everyone’s needs in a disaster, including people with disabilities.  

The ADA requires state and local governments and private agencies provide auxiliary aides and services for people with disabilities, like qualified readers, large print, Braille, and audio versions of print documents; qualified sign language interpreters, certified deaf interpreters, real-time captioning and video relay.

Local partners may need to be educated on the availability of technologies that provide people who are Deaf or hard of hearing access to vitally important emergency and disaster related information. Broadcast networks may need to be reminded of the need to keep interpreters in the video feed and use other captioning services, particularly when they are reporting emergency, disaster and public health messaging.

These are just some examples of how the ADA includes emergency preparedness, response and recovery efforts. And, with open dialogue between federal agencies and disability-led organizations, we can better work together to develop comprehensive accessible and inclusive disaster preparedness, response and recovery programs in our communities across the nation.


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