QUESTION: Michele, I read your Winter 2014 Indiana LTAP Newsletter article (“ADA Corner,” page 16) about a really thorough approach to keeping people with disabilities in mind when preparing communities for disaster emergencies and, in this case, severe snow storms or even moderate snow conditions. Can you share that on this blog since winter is now upon us? —Jeff, Indiana

ANSWER: I am happy to share this information again. It can never be presented too often! The below guidance is a combination of my comments and information from the Department of Justice’s “An ADA Guide for Local Governments” manual, which helps jurisdictions make community emergency preparedness and response programs accessible to people with disabilities. At the end of this post I will also link to valuable resources both for professionals planning for disaster emergencies, and for laypeople.

Get user input
Involve people with disabilities to identify the needs and evaluate effective emergency management practices. My suggestions on who to contact to recruit people with disabilities:

  • Mayor’s committees
  • Independent living centers
  • Specific organizations that serve a disability such as American Foundation for the Blind, schools for the deaf, etc.
  • Others who have contact with people with different disabilities, e.g., vision, hearing, cognitive, mental illness, and other disabilities.

Warning: Interview possible candidates for their knowledge, attitude, and willingness to back up their information. As with all groups of people, there are varied ranges of attitude within—including those with axes to grind! Choose people who really want to be positive participants, and who have specific abilities that can add to the success of the planning and outcomes.

Understand what’s needed
Issues that have the greatest impact on people with disabilities include:

  • Notification. A combination of warning methods so that disaster and weather-related announcements can reach those with vision, hearing, and cognitive disabilities. Methods can include open-captioning on local TV stations, telephone calls or auto-dialed TTY (teletypewriter) messages, and door-to-door contact with pre-registered individuals. You’ll also need to be sure those with disabilities can communicate with you. Work closely with your media professionals to assist with regular announcements and instructions on actions for the individuals and community. Remind the public to check up on and help neighbors who are elderly or with disabilities.
  • Evacuation. For self-evacuation, provide information on locations that can handle people with disabilities, special devices, and medication regimes.
  • Emergency transportation. If buses or vans are used for assisting evacuation, be sure they are accessible vehicles. For winter weather emergencies, make every effort to safely evacuate in advance of impending storms so accessible vehicles can avoid hazardous snow- or ice-covered streets.
  • Sheltering. Identify accessible trailers, hotels/motels, apartments, etc. Have a contract in place that covers the responsibilities of the provider and users.
  • Access to medications, refrigeration, and back-up power.
  • Access to their mobility devices or service animals while in transit or at shelters.
  • Access to information.

Plan ahead! (Follow these action steps)
Establish policies and procedures that can be immediately used when an emergency strikes:

  • Hold mock community disaster events that include participation of people with disabilities.
  • Train shelter staff and run practice exercises to prepare the facility. Be sure that people with disabilities are included in these trainings.
  • Ensure that service animals will not be separated from their owners. This preparation is vital when designating the best locations for individuals with service dogs. Also important is making sure that service dogs have a place to relieve themselves.
  • Ensure accessible shelters have back-up power (for respirators and other devices) and can keep medications cold/refrigerated.
  • Adopt communication procedures for people with vision, hearing, and speech disabilities. This includes training staff to provide accessible communication through exchanging notes or posting written announcements to go with spoken announcements.
  • Identify temporary accessible housing before the actual need.
  • Have a plan for returning home with sign-out forms and accountability for those who left.

Contract for emergency services
Make sure that contracts for emergency services require providers to follow appropriate steps outlined above. Review the terms of these contracts on a regular basis to ensure that they continue to meet the accessibility needs of people with disabilities. Provide training to contractors so that they understand how best to coordinate their activities with your overall accessibility plan for emergency services.

Links and resources
Where to find excellent emergency planning information:

Web pages where communication boards (picture charts and cards for those with limited language ability) are available:

Wishing you the best of luck with a successful winter season!