Legal Protection for Individuals with Disabilities in Emergencies

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Legal Protection for Individuals with Disabilities in Emergencies

Alice Frame, MA - MDHHS Disabilities Health Unit Coordinator

When writing and updating emergency plans, it is important to make sure we are protecting everyone in our community.  Including in those plans people with disabilities is especially important. The law helps to guide emergency preparedness planning.  For example, the Robert T. Stafford Act of 1988 provides a foundation for emergency response and management.  The law also guides emergency planning and response activities in regards to people with disabilities.

There are several laws and executive orders that relate to the health and safety of people with disabilities. Three of these laws apply specifically to emergency preparedness and response: The Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and Executive Order 13347.  

  1. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities by private entities, state and local governments, and the US Congress in public programming and locations, employment, and telecommunication services. People with disabilities must be included in all emergency plans and efforts created by state government agencies, public services, and employers.
  2. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits against discrimination based on disability in any federal programs, funds, services, and practices. Any program or organization that receives federal funding must comply with these guidelines, including their emergency preparedness planning and response efforts.  
  3. Executive Order 13347, Individuals with Disabilities in Emergency Preparedness ensures that the federal government and executive departments consider the needs of individuals with disabilities in emergency planning and response to ensure the safety and security of that population. As part of this, it directs the federal government to collaborate with state, local, and tribal government agencies to address the needs of individuals with disabilities in emergency preparedness efforts.

People with disabilities are a part of the general population and should be accounted for in all emergency preparedness programs and policies applicable to the public. These pieces of legislation make accessibility the law.  Including people with disabilities in emergency planning is vital.  Adding a member of the disabilities community to a planning group may help identify gaps in accessibility.   Exercises that include members of the disabilities community can help ensure all plans work as intended.   

One example of how Michigan programs include people with disabilities in emergency preparedness planning is with the Kent County Health Department Emergency Preparedness Program.  Kent County has engaged community partners with disabilities in preparedness program development, plan review, and exercises to help ensure disability considerations are addressed in preparedness, response, and recovery. In August 2016, members of the Kent Regional Inclusive Community Coalition (RICC) participated in a public health full-scale exercise of a point of dispensing site. Participants engaged in all points of the clinic flow. Following the exercise, Kent County collected feedback from the participants on the accessibility of the clinic environment and process; those observations were included in the after- action report and corrective actions were identified for updating plans and emergency procedures. Kent County continues to include disability partners in preparedness efforts and encourages their community response partners to do the same.

Including the disability community in all preparedness activities prevents issues down the road with possible unintentional exclusion of people with disabilities in future emergency response activities.