Assessing Emergency Shelters for Accessibility

Bureau of EMS, Trauma & Preparedness Logo

Pumpkin and Corn

Assessing Emergency Shelters for Accessibility

Alice Frame, MA - MDHHS Disabilities Health Unit Coordinator

By law, emergency shelters must be accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities.  Not all people with disabilities require special medical attention.  In fact, the needs of individuals who are not medically fragile or unstable can be met in a regular shelter with proper accessibility accommodations.

The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division ADA website has a completed checklist that can be used to assess the accessibility of shelters. 

Here are some key points:

  1. Adequate space for wheelchair users to navigate all areas of the shelter – this includes aspects of the shelter such as parking, hallways, restrooms, and living space.  A wheelchair user should be able to completely turn the wheelchair in any given area. The ADA checklist outlines the specific dimensions required for different spaces to accomplish this.
  2. Obstacle-free floors and walls – All areas should be free of trip hazards. The walls should also be obstacle-free, meaning that there are no protruding objects that someone could run into. This allows wheelchair users to navigate freely, and those who are visually impaired or have balance or coordination limitations. 
  3. Accessible sleeping arrangements – Provide accessible cots that have a sleeping surface roughly the same height as the seat of a person’s wheelchair.  Additionally, ensure the route leading to the cot is obstacle-free and meets required dimensions.  Set up sleeping facilities so that individuals with disabilities can sleep near family and friends.
  4. Accessible restrooms – in addition to meeting required dimensions and being obstacle free, restroom accessibility also includes examples such as assistive railings, toilet, hook, and sink heights.
  5. Service animals – The law allows service animals in all areas of emergency shelters that people are.  Service animals and owners should be kept together unless separating them is necessary for the safety of the individual.
  6. Electrical power availability – shelters should provide back up power for power-dependent equipment, medication refrigeration, and assistive device battery charging. 

With some advanced planning, response efforts can successfully meet the needs of the disabilities community. The complete guide and checklist is available on the DOJ ADA website.