Bringing People with Disabilities to the Emergency Planning Table

Alice Frame - - MDHHS Disabilities Health Unit Coordinator

In a disaster, emergency preparedness becomes emergency response – evacuating individuals from flooded areas, distributing food and water to towns wrecked by a tornado, controlling the spread of a disease or decontaminating areas after an attack. Emergency preparedness starts long before a disaster, and often begins in a conference room with experts gathered around a table. You have state and local public health workers, emergency responders, preparedness experts, epidemiologists and law enforcement all together in a room, each bringing their unique perspective. However, there is an important facet of the population’s needs not represented here – people with disabilities. It is important to have disability advocates and disability health professionals involved in decision making, but it’s even more important to have people who have disabilities present.

So, why should people with disabilities be included in the emergency planning process?

It will make your planning team more representative of the population.
People with disabilities represent the nation’s largest minority group. In both the United States and within Michigan, 1 in 4 adults has a disability. We are not talking about a small group of people, and these rates are only increasing. When planning for emergencies that the general population may experience, the entire population should be represented in planning. People with disabilities are not a ‘separate population’ – they are part of that general population. Include people with different types of disabilities – mobility, cognitive, hearing, vision, self-care and independent living.

It will help everyone better understand what situations they may encounter in an emergency.
In an emergency, responders will assist and respond to requests from and about people with disabilities. The people best able to prepare responders for these interactions are the people who will experience them. Things like:

These are all very realistic situations – and only the tip of the iceberg. None have a simple answer. By including people with disabilities in the planning process, responders can plan for situations like these and know how best to address them as they come up. It will save time and reduce stress during emergencies.

It will help expand the preparedness and response network.
Who should be called if a person with a hearing impairment requests an ASL interpreter for a meeting? Which organizations serve people with disabilities in each county? Many people cannot answer these questions off the top of their head. People with disabilities bring not only knowledge but also a network to the table with them. If a person has used an interpreter in the past, they may be able to recommend an agency should the need arise.

It allows emergency responders to be better educated on emergency response for people with disabilities.
It’s important that emergency responders have a basic understanding of the unique needs of people with different disabilities. They will need to know things like how to identify and treat a hyploglycemic episode and how to communicate with nonverbal people.  It’s also important that they understand basic disability etiquette – things like keeping individuals with their service animals whenever possible and using person-first language.

It will help meet legal requirements.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that people with disabilities have access to all public and state government programs, resources and facilities. If an emergency shelter isn’t accessible, it could result in a lawsuit – and planners likely weren’t aware of the problem. There often isn’t malicious intent behind ADA violations. If people with disabilities participate in the planning, they are likely to help catch these issues up front and have time (and the assistance of people with disabilities) to address them.

It is the right thing to do.
Public health (or any kind of healthcare, emergency response, or advocacy organization), serves the people - all people. People with disabilities are not only part of this population served, but a significant portion of it.  Making sure that the needs of all people are met in emergency preparedness work is the right thing to do.

Next time you’re in a conference room working on emergency planning look around and make sure you have the best possible team assembled. Give people with disabilities the chance to help you make your plan the best it can be.