Recently, Kathleen Madigan, the Disability Integration Advisor (DIA) for FEMA’s Sandy Recovery Field Office in New York, was informed by Goldie Rosenberg, FEMA Voluntary Agency Liaison (VAL) about a neighborhood in Far Rockaway where Sandy survivors were struggling. Madigan, Rosenberg and Shelba Bradley of FEMA’s Equal Rights Office (ERO) decided to drive out to the area to assess the situation. While walking around the area, they crossed paths with a woman whose family was renting a home that was damaged by, but never repaired after, Hurricane Sandy.
The woman was living in a small apartment while caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s disease, her son who is blind and a daughter with autism. After visiting the apartment and noticing its damp, spongy carpeting, distinct mildew smell and a window that could not be closed, the FEMA employees told the woman about services she might be eligible for. They advised her to contact a local council representative and a New York State disaster case manager. Working with community leaders, they helped relocate the entire family to safe, sanitary housing.
“People with disabilities, living independently after Hurricane Sandy are intrepid survivors,” says Madigan. “They are capable and fiercely independent but may not know what services are available or where to go if they need help. I try to plug people in to long-term recovery resources.”
Disability Integration Advisors (DIA) are deployed to support states to meet the needs of survivors during disaster response and recovery. The role of the DIA is to provide subject matter expertise and guidance to enable FEMA to ensure that people with disabilities and others with access and functional needs have equal access to and receive equal benefit from all of FEMA’s disaster-related programs and services. DIAs work collaboratively with disability community partners, relevant FEMA programs and other federal and state agencies.
Madigan, formerly co-director of a New York Independent Living Center, began working for FEMA in January 2013. Her background and relationships with the disability community are central to her ability to assist survivors and advise FEMA departments on access and inclusion issues.
“Kathleen is willing to roll up her sleeves and get directly involved,” says Seth Golbey, VAL group supervisor. “She offers her expertise in service to survivors.”
At the New York Sandy Recovery Field Office and out in the field, Madigan teams up with employees from VAL and the ERO on a regular basis, sharing information, trading resources and collaborating on solutions for recovery. Sometimes they make joint appearances at community events or recovery fairs. When someone from VAL or ERO encounters a situation involving a person with a disability they often call Madigan for advice or referrals.
The synergy between the departments has reaped benefits for survivors. Madigan credits VAL and ERO with spreading the word about universal accessibility and inclusion to community groups. “The VALs and ERO have helped raise awareness about disability integration,” Madigan says. “Community groups recognize the importance and value of reaching out to everyone, including people with disabilities.”
As the recovery continues, housing remains a central issue for people with access and functional needs. Madigan is one of the FEMA staffers currently working with other organizations on an Accessible Housing Recovery Resources guide that contains information about home elevation and accessibility for stakeholders. By developing the guide Madigan hopes that accessibility will be considered in the planning stages of an elevation project. Going forward, she looks to a future where accessibility is incorporated into a building’s initial design. That is the essence of disability integration.