Emergencies and Disasters: Failing to Plan is Like Planning to Fail

Nobody likes to think about sudden emergencies or disasters, but the impact of events such as Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy has raised most people’s awareness to a new level. Here in New Jersey, I saw first-hand how Sandy disrupted and in many cases decimated the homes, businesses, communities, and lives of so many New Jerseyans. (I also attended a conference in New Orleans more than a year after Katrina, and saw “Tent City,” a place where individuals and families displaced by Katrina still were living in tents under a well-trafficked bridge.) With the awareness raised by these disasters, and many others throughout the world, it’s impossible to ignore the reality that planning for emergencies is an important part of our overall personal plan for a safe, comfortable, sustainable lifestyle…and life.

Despite the Americans with Disabilities Act’s (ADA’s) mandates to eliminate architectural and other barriers to full access and inclusion in places of public accommodation, Sandy brought to the forefront the fact that there were gaps in emergency and disaster planning (and recovery planning) that would ensure that people with disabilities had accessible transport, barrier-free emergency locations, sign language interpreters, etc.. Like other issues underlying the ADA, closing these gaps is a matter of equal civil rights. All community members have a right to the same opportunities for response, rescue and recovery, and agencies involved in emergency and disaster management have a duty to treat the needs of all community members with equal diligence and priority.

Even so, it is important for people with disabilities to take part in advocacy that will ensure that their needs are heard, understood, and counted. The ADA was the product of years of difficult, painstaking, sometimes frustrating toil, an unprecedented feat of mobilized advocacy on the part of people with disabilities all over the country. People of different ages with all different kinds of disabilities unified and enlisted the support of other marginalized minority groups to fight against years of oppression and discrimination against people with disabilities, and to have these injustices righted.

While advocating for system-wide changes, which we all know can take a long time, we can honor the legacy of the Independent Living Movement by taking control over our own lives, including taking charge of our own emergency and disaster preparedness planning. People with disabilities are often expert at staying on top of medication and treatment planning and implementation, managing symptoms, juggling medical appointments, setting up transportation arrangements, and more. Since society at large still routinely fails to comprehensively consider the needs of people with disabilities, people with disabilities are often, by necessity, tremendously adaptable and skilled at problem-solving so they can engage in their communities the way people without disabilities do, despite architectural and attitudinal barriers. The skills and understanding possessed by people with disabilities is as crucial to inclusive emergency and disaster planning at the systems level as it was in getting the ADA passed.

In a recent statement released by the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate stated, “As we celebrate a quarter century of the ADA, we look to people with disabilities as leading the way. By taking their own preparedness actions every day, they set an example for all of us, including their families and their communities.” In recognition of the 25th anniversary of the ADA, FEMA, along with the Ad Council, has released a special, accessible Public Service Announcement (PSA) to remind people with disabilities to make a plan. The PSA shows individuals with disabilities, including a deaf family and a person using a wheelchair, preparing for an emergency. The PSA is highlights four critical points for emergency and disaster preparedness for people with disabilities: (1) be informed, (2) make a plan, (3) build a kit, and (4) get involved. (The PSA provides an audio descriptive service, accurate captioning, and a certified deaf interpreter, making it accessible to those with hearing and vision impairments.)

This PSA is a great way to take control and start our personal emergency and disaster planning. It can be viewed on FEMA’s website at https://www.fema.gov/media-library/assets/videos/107805. We can enlist the participation of our family and those in our support network to become informed, make a plan, build a kit, and get involved in our own emergency and disaster plan. In this way, we can have protections in place while we continue to advocate for better emergency and disaster planning and response at the systems level.

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