Organizations and Emergency Preparedness for Individuals with Disabilities , Part I: Why?

As you are in your work cubicle or at your home, perhaps within a high-rise building, an alarm begins to […]

As you are in your work cubicle or at your home, perhaps within a high-rise building, an alarm begins to sound. What do you do? Where do you go?

During my career, I have worked and lived in many high-rise buildings. My personal stubbornness and denial kicked in whenever the topic of evacuation planning arose. I would shrug my shoulders, then indicate that I would “follow the crowd” or wait in the elevator lobby for the fire department. Despite being carried in my wheelchair down four floors when an elevator shorted out during my college years, I guess I was still apprehensive to plan because, in order to do so, I would have to envision tragedy, as well as the impact of my limitations, let alone how I would ask for help!

Questions and situations such as these were the topic of a day-and-a-half symposium called “Emergency Preparedness for People with Disabilities: An Interagency Seminar of Exchange for Federal Managers” held in Washington DC last December and hosted by the United States Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). A report entitled “Emergency Preparedness for People with Disabilities,” summarizing these discussions, was recently released.

Although the seminar may be seen as a reaction to terrorism threats in light of the 9/11 incidents, the World Trade Center bombing, and the Oklahoma City bombing, its purpose was to address any conceivable emergency. For example, loss of electricity, chemical leak/spill, fire, severe weather, flood, earthquake, and so on. When I first heard of this seminar, my thought wasn’t, “Why now?”, it was, “This wasn’t addressed already?!?” Granted, the seminar was geared toward federal government managers, but the resulting report contains invaluable information for us all, whether we are performing emergency preparedness for work or home.

This article will be the first in a series of three parts addressing emergency preparedness for individuals with disabilities. Within this article, we will take a look at the more subtle reasons why we should plan ahead. In the second article, we’ll take a look at strategies and tips that you may find helpful during your planning efforts. We will talk with organizations that have already developed and tested their plans, including a follow-up on the Hennepin County Government Center’s two-hour emergency evacuation drill scheduled for Wednesday, July 21. Finally, the third article will identify resources available to help you develop, evaluate, and implement a comprehensive and feasible plan. These resources may include guidebooks, consultants, trainers, equipment. supplies, and so on.

During his opening remarks, Dr. W. Roy Grizzard, Jr., the ODEP Assistant Secretary, said, “…[a] workplace should be one that is comfortable, healthy and safe and that feeling should be conveyed to [everyone, including those with disabilities]”. Then, Secretary of Labor, Elaine L. Chao, went on to say that a “secure environment for employees with disabilities is a critical element in meeting President George W. Bush’s challenge to remove the barriers that impede Americans with disabilities from leading full and independent lives”.

Later in the conference, Mr. Daniel Sutherland, an Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, pointed out that “the job of preparedness is not only the job of professionals…but all our responsibility to be prepared” to protect co-workers, customers, and residents. And why is that? “The professionals can’t do everything, be everywhere,” concluded Sutherland. He went on to state that emergency preparedness by employers on behalf of people with disabilities deserves more attention for several reasons.

First, a supervisor may be uncomfortable hiring an individual with a disability if that supervisor perceives his or her area does not have an adequate emergency plan; it raises issues of responsibility and liability. Therefore, it may subconsciously create an employment barrier. Secondly, a housing obstacle could develop with residential and commercial property managers. Therefore, as Dr. Grizzard pointed out, everyone has the right to participate within a work environment “that is comfortable, healthy and safe.” Besides adhering to human rights principles, such environments promote greater job satisfaction, efficiency, plus employee recruitment and retention efforts. Third, while performing emergency preparedness for individuals with disabilities, challenges will emerge and be addressed, potentially revealing needs and solutions for others not experiencing disabilities.

Our next article will briefly explore a summary of the symposium’s recommendations, including eight rules of emergency preparedness planning for people with disabilities discussed by Mr. Lawrence Roffee, Executive Director of the United States Architectural and Transportation Compliance Board (Access Board); the checklist used by Ms. Mary Ann Wilson, Director of the United States U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD); as well as critical tips offered by Mr. Al Stewart, United States Department of Labor Director of Business Operations, Mr. John Benison, United States Department of Transportation Office of Civil Rights Disability Policy Advisor, and Ms. Pamela Butler, the United States Department of Defense/Defense Intelligence Agency (DOD/DIA) Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity Office Deaf and Disabled Persons Program Manager.

If you are aware of resources for developing, evaluating, or implementing emergency preparedness plans for individuals with disabilities … whether guidebooks, consultants, trainers, equipment, supplies, or other … please let me know. You can contact me by calling 952-401-9808 or e-mailing lhegland@mn.rr.com Thanks!