Why we support the Disability Integration and Coordination Improvement Act
By, Roger Wieand, Skidmore College and Nita Narayan, Fordham Law School
Assisted by Neil Brazer, American University
Note: You can show your support for this Bill by signing a support statement here:
The “Disability Integration and Coordination Improvement Act” (H.R. 2849) was introduced to Congress on September 7th, 2011. Why is this Act needed? Why should it be a high priority in this legislative session?
Disasters do not discriminate. In a disaster, it is especially important for emergency management to account for the needs of those with access and functional needs, for whom existing methods of evacuation and relief may not be adequate.
About 20% of people self-report having access and functional needs. Disabilities can include medical conditions, psychological conditions, learning disorders or significant allergies. Many people have limitations that affect their walking, breathing, cognition, or coordination – things that can be easy to take for granted. Disabilities can be visible or invisible, known or unknown. According to 2000 Census figures, at least one in six Americans are at an increased risk of injury or death in emergency situations solely because of their disability.
People with disabilities are disproportionately affected by disasters. They have a tendency to be overlooked during disaster situations where the act of nature creates new, more visible injuries and impairments.Those with sight or hearing related disabilities, for example, may not be reached by warnings on television or Emergency Alert Systems. For those with physical disabilities that require the use of a wheelchair, or who have limited basic physical abilities, emergency staircases are not an option. Evacuation buses may not be wheelchair accessible. Shelter facilities are often inaccessible to those with disabilities: bathrooms and showers that require steps to get to, or payphones without TTY for those with limited hearing. Especially in a disaster, it is crucial that services are inclusive for those with access and functional needs.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990 to extend civil rights protections for Americans with disabilities. “A public entity shall administer services, programs, and activities in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of qualified individuals with disabilities,” the act states (28 CFR § 35.130(d)). The act defines a disability as any “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity” (42 U.S.C. § 12102 (2)). Even in an emergency – especially in an emergency – response services must fully comply with the ADA. This mandate applies both to public and non-governmental or private entities (28 CFR § 35.130 (b)(1)).
There are simple, reasonable solutions to these issues. Emergency services can communicate through text messages and TTY services, for the blind and deaf, respectively. Evacuation chairs can be used to help those with limited mobility escape a building. While some colleges and schools may act as accessible shelters during a disaster, other buildings, including temporary shelters, may not be accessible.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) coordinates responses to disasters within the United States and provides support and experts in specialized fields to local and state governments. In 2009, the Disaster Accountability Project supported efforts to prioritize FEMA’s “Disability Coordinator” position. A new FEMA Office of Disability Integration and Coordination (ODIC) was established, and Marcie Roth was appointed to the role.
The ODIC provides information, training, specialists, and other resources to ensure that in a disaster, those with access and functional needs are not forgotten.
During disasters in 2011 and 2012, the Office deployed with, and served as advisors to, Federal Coordinating Officers. ODIC has trained emergency managers and shelter planners on accessibility issues. It has provided equipment for survivors with disabilities. The office has also hosted two conferences, engaging community leaders, emergency managers, and other stakeholders to discuss improvements to response services that meet the needs of those with access and functional needs.
When Hurricane Irene threatened communities across America, Disability Integration Specialists from ODIC coordinated preparation efforts between various local and state disability groups before the storm made landfall. As recovery efforts continued, representatives from ODIC were on staff at the National Response Coordination Center to provide guidance on disability issues to affected states.
After Mississippi was hit with a series of storms, tornadoes, and record-setting floods in the spring of 2011, FEMA deployed a team led by a Disability Integration Specialist and collaborated with disability organizations to expand outreach efforts to impacted communities and distribute information in accessible formats.
ODIC is currently “discretionary” and not a mandated entity. That’s why we are urging disability rights and health service groups and interested individuals across the United States to support HR 2849, a Bill that will permanently establish and codify the office.