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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

NCIL Position Paper: Emergency Preparedness

Emergency Preparedness and Response within the Disability Community

Adopted February, 2014

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, State and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation.

Emergency preparedness and response services are provided by Federal, State and local government and are considered public accommodation. Therefore all services provided before, during and after an emergency should not discriminate and should ensure equal access for individuals with disabilities.

Terrorists attacked our country on September 11, 2001 destroying buildings and lives. Thousands in the World Trade Center towers were injured and killed. Many of them people with disabilities unable to escape. Hurricane Katrina struck the gulf coasts of Mississippi and Louisiana in August of 2005 bringing with it a storm surge of 30 feet, sustained winds of 175 miles per hour and death to hundreds of individuals. Many who died were people with disabilities. The year 2010 set a record for number and severity of tornadoes in the mid-west. Dozens were killed, among them people with disabilities. Super Storm Sandy caused unprecedented destruction in New Jersey and New York in 2012. Among the people trapped in high rise apartment buildings, living without food, water and electricity for weeks were hundreds of individuals with disabilities.

In the wake of each of these disasters, the lack of assistance and the lack of equal access to individuals with disabilities has been glaringly obvious to those of us affected personally by disability and those in the community who have firsthand knowledge of disability. They died because they refused to evacuate to shelters immediately, knowing that many were inaccessible and that at a minimum, they would have no accessible cot to lay their head or a bathroom to use. In short, their needs would not be met. In some cases they were turned away by shelter staff refusing their equipment and/or service animals. Individuals with cognitive and developmental disabilities had no quiet or safe place to rest among the hundreds in mass care shelters. The “special needs” shelters only allow the individual and one family member, thereby separating a family in crisis. Center for Independent Living staff, and other service providers with years of experience (people who know and understand functional needs) were refused access to the shelters in many areas. During emergency preparedness and response, people with disabilities, their families and caregivers have been systematically and consistently discriminated against by State and local government and public accommodations in direct violation of their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Individuals with disabilities are dying because the laws put into effect to protect them are ignored. This is a crisis that needs immediate attention!

Our system of emergency preparedness and response must be re-designed in order to meet the needs of everyone. This crisis must be addressed at every level of government and in every area of disaster preparedness and response, including grassroots community volunteer responders. At a minimum:

  • Each national organization promoting the needs and rights of the disability community should make disaster preparedness and response among people with disabilities an immediate priority.
  • Individuals with disabilities should be at the planning table, nationally and locally, when disaster preparedness and response is discussed.
  • All training developed to educate and promote civil rights should discuss those rights in the context of preparedness and response services.
  • All reports written and developed regarding the lives of individuals with disabilities should address preparedness and response.
  • Steps should be taken to promote cooperation and collaboration between public and private entities to ensure equal access in disaster preparedness and response services.
  • All disability rights organizations such as NCIL, AAPD and NOD and all public and private organizations such as FEMA, Homeland Security, Department of Justice, American Red Cross and others should immediately begin review of their policies and practices regarding disaster preparedness and response.
  • Necessary changes should be made to ensure that every individual, regardless of their disability, can access any and all services made available to our citizens during times of disaster.

Our lives depend on it!