Six Compelling Reasons to Include People with Disabilities at the Emergency Planning Table

By Alice Hoffman, program coordinator, Health Promotion for People with Disabilities Initiative, Disabilities Health Unit, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services

Emergency preparedness is an essential part of public health. 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. Effective emergency response is impossible without good planning that takes place long before the disaster; it often begins at a conference room table surrounded by state and local public health workers, emergency responders, preparedness experts, epidemiologists, and law enforcement–each role brings something different to the discussion. Unfortunately, one significant population is often unrepresented at the table – individuals with disabilities.

So, why should individuals with disabilities be included in the emergency planning process? Here are six compelling reasons for adopting inclusive emergency preparedness strategies at the national, state, and local level:

1. The planning team would be more representative of the population as a whole.
People with disabilities represent the nation’s largest minority group. In the United States, roughly one in five people have a disability; in Michigan, it’s more than one in four individuals. Planning for emergencies that impact the general population means that people with disabilities need to be accounted for.

2. People with disabilities can bring invaluable insight to questions such as:

    • Where can people with power-dependent medical equipment go during a power outage?
    • How can a person with a service animal be decontaminated without extended separation from that service animal?
    • What is the best way to convey information to individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing during a local press conference?
    • Where can someone go to get their medications during a disaster?

These are all very realistic situations – and only the tip of the iceberg; none have a simple answer. By including people with disabilities in emergency planning, key stakeholders (e.g., local health officials, preparedness partners, healthcare professionals) can plan ahead for these complex situations. Ultimately, this will save time and reduce stress during an ongoing emergency or disaster.

3. Emergency planners will expand their network.
People with disabilities not only bring knowledge on how to best serve their needs during an emergency, they can also connect planners with an extensive network of resources and support agencies. For example, they can inform local stakeholders on which community-based organizations serve individuals with disabilities, or where to locate disability services providers such as ASL interpreters.

4. Emergency responders will understand how to serve people with disabilities better.
Again, one in five people in the U.S. have a disability. In the event of any disaster, emergency responders will assist people with disabilities. It’s important that responders have a basic understanding of what a hypoglycemic episode looks like and how to respond, or how nonverbal individuals communicate their needs. It’s also important that responders understand basic disability etiquette—for example, keeping individuals with their service animals if at all possible, and using person-first language.

5. People with disabilities can help local and state agencies meet legal requirements.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) ensures that people with disabilities have access to all public and state government programs, resources, and facilities. If an agency sets up an emergency shelter set-up that isn’t accessible to all populations, it could result in a lawsuit that could have been avoided. There often isn’t malicious intent behind ADA violations, but a lack of awareness. Engaging individuals with disabilities substantially increases the likelihood to catch and prevent such legal implications.

6. It’s the right thing to do.
The primary role of those who work in public health (or any kind of healthcare, emergency response, or advocacy organization), is to serve the people. A job in any of these sectors means helping people, all people, achieve health and wellness. People with disabilities are not only an integral part of the nation’s population, but also a significant portion of it.  Making sure that the needs of all people are met is the right thing to do and at the very core of public health and emergency preparedness work.

So, the next time you find yourself in a conference room working on emergency planning, 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.

For more information on inclusive emergency preparedness and additional health and disability resources for public health officials, please visit the following NACCHO resources:

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