Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act protects people with disabilities from discrimination on the basis of disability when it comes to state and local government services.
That means that our community is not to be excluded from participation or denied benefits from programs, activities, and services including emergency services that the state and local government provide to others. Since we are focusing on emergency services, those services include:
- mitigation (making your neighborhood or home safer from fire),
- planning for how to respond to an emergency, response (including alerts, evacuations, and sheltering) and
- recovery (rebuilding, emergency funding, etc.).
This means that services offered to other residents must reasonably accommodate residents with disabilities.
During 9-11 and Katrina we saw what happens to people with disabilities in emergencies. Since then, the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) has been strongly pushing states and local governments who have Emergency Operations programs to include people with disabilities and disability community agencies when developing their required Emergency Response Plans.
FEMA sends money to the states for the development of these plans among other activities. Because we are the experts on disability needs as opposed to well-meaning individuals who are able-bodied, it is extremely important that representatives from the various disability or functional needs parts of our community be involved.
In El Paso, County the City of Colorado Springs and the County have a joint disaster plan for people with disabilities or Functional Needs. Other jurisdictions in the County such as Manitou Springs have their own plan. We have asked for the City and County plan but have not received it. Manitou Springs has an outdated plan and will be working to update it to include how they will respond to residents with disabilities during an emergency. We need to ensure that all Offices of Emergency Management in our 8 county area have workable plans for responding to persons with disabilities during an emergency regardless of where individuals may live.
The heart of an emergency response lies in three areas.
- Alerts-communication with the public
- Evacuations-how do we move a large number of people out of harm’s way
- Shelter-how and where do we shelter those people we move out of harm’s way
As we saw in the Waldo Canyon disaster, there is a need for a wide variety of alerting strategies from TV and radio, to captioning, sign language interpreters, texting and all Internet based mechanisms. Alerts must be both oral and in print. What stations, websites or other means should we be watching for accurate information?
There is a significant need to make sure that we have methods to evacuate people who cannot walk or climb stairs.
- This means vehicles that have lifts for those in wheelchairs and low to the ground vehicles for others who can walk but not climb up stairs. Asking people to leave their mobility devices behind, particularly wheelchairs, is not acceptable. The result is that person goes to a hospital and takes a bed that could be used for someone injured or ill. Or the individual sits in a car for several days as has happened in a California wildfire.
- We must have shelters that can accommodate people with all sorts of functional needs. Wheelchair access to all services (beds, showers, toilets, eating stations, registration and childcare) will be important.
- For those with cognitive impairments, including those with mental health issues, a quiet space where one can escape from overstimulation will be important. Communication in shelters (paper and pen to dry erase board to sign language interpreters) will be important as will volunteers who can assist blind and visually impaired individuals.
- Maps that show how shelter services are laid out will be helpful for everyone. There needs to be a private space for personal assistance to occur (toileting, bathing, dressing) for people with significant disabilities who need that assistance. Contracts for personal assistance services need to be in place. Remember, people with disabilities are not sick, we just have a disability. With advance planning all of these issues can be addressed.
- Lack of information around what to do if evacuated is a big problem. Who to call, where to go, is it accessible to me and my disability and how will I get back if I don’t have a car are all questions that should be answered before a disaster. This lack of information is a barrier for everyone, not just people with disabilities.
What are other issues you would like to see addressed in a successful emergency plan for people with functional needs/disabilities?