Disasters and People with Disabilities: Around the World or Around the Corner

national flags at United Nations headquartersThe United Nations (UN) recently surveyed thousands of people with disabilities in more than 100 countries around the world, finding that the majority of those individuals have no personal preparedness plans, and their communities and governments rarely consult them or consider their needs in planning for or responding to disasters.

The UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, Margareta Wahlström, noted that people with disabilities experience a disproportionally high level of disaster-related injury and death “because their needs are ignored and neglected by the official planning process in the majority of situations.”

Few survey respondents were aware of any disaster management plans in their communities; fewer still had participated in any planning processes, although half of the respondents expressed a desire to do so.

Only 20% of survey respondents said they could evacuate “immediately without difficulty” in the event of a sudden disaster. If “sufficient” time were available, the percentage of those who could evacuate without difficulty nearly doubled (to 38%), underscoring the need for effective, inclusive early warning systems.

“Early warning systems, public awareness campaigns and other responses often fail to consider the needs of persons with disabilities, putting them at an unnecessarily elevated risk and sending a harmful message of inequality,” said UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki-moon.

Here at Home

The U.S. is a global leader in recognizing and protecting the rights of people with disabilities, yet we, too, can fall short when disaster strikes. A federal court ruling in the case of Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled (BCID), Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York (CIDNY), Bell, and Morales v the City of New York helps to illustrate some of the challenges that remain.

The Honorable Jesse M. Furman, the judge in the case, pointed out that the City has “faced more than its fair share of emergencies and disasters” in recent years, from the terrorist attacks of 2001 to Hurricanes Irene and Sandy a decade later. The judge recognized the “immense” challenges of emergency planning and the “admirable” job that New York has done in many respects. Yet he found that this diverse, sophisticated, and resourceful city failed to provide “meaningful access” to the emergency preparedness and response system for people with disabilities.

Kenneth Martinez described his personal experience during Hurricane Sandy: As the storm advanced on the city, Mr. Martinez tried to board an evacuation bus, but they were all too crowded and had no room for his powered wheelchair. The driver told him more buses were coming in ten to fifteen minutes, but after waiting twenty minutes, and fearing the rain would cause the electrical components of his chair to short out, Mr. Martinez gave up and went home. He later called 3-1-1, as instructed by the City in its materials and announcements, but could not get through for several hours, and when he did he was told he would be “put on a list” for assistance; no one ever came. As rising waters filled his apartment, he banged on the ceiling in desperation, and some neighbors broke a window to swim into his apartment and rescue him.

This story may be a dramatic representation, but a representation nonetheless, of the experiences of many others.

During the trial, dozens of witnesses testified; they included emergency planners and responders, city government officials, experts, and people with disabilities. Tens of thousands of pages of documents were introduced, and the judge found this “mountain of evidence and argument” revealing. Among other findings, the judge noted:

  • The City’s plans were vague, making general statements but containing no specifics about how things would or could actually be done.
  • Plans were based on assumptions that all individuals were capable of self-evacuation; plans failed “almost entirely to address the needs of people with disabilities during the evacuation of a multi-story building,” particularly in large-scale situations or no-notice situations.
  • Plans were based on systems that had never been assessed or tested to ensure their accessibility or capacity, and several of these systems (like the 3-1-1 system) proved to be woefully inadequate.

    • The City advised people to use the public transportation system (including the ADA complementary paratransit system, “Access-a-Ride”) to get to shelters. The overall system was largely inaccessible to wheelchair users and others with disabilities; most subway stations were not accessible, buses had very limited seating capacity for people using wheelchairs, and there were almost no accessible taxis. Access-a-Ride was designed to offset some of these deficiencies, but the City had no plan to ensure that it remained available and operated in concert with other systems during emergencies. During Hurricane Sandy, for example, Access-a-Ride shut down hours before other modes of public transportation, and after the storm passed (when public buses were operating), provided rides only in cases of “medical necessity.” Judge Furman wrote that “the City has no meaningful plan whatsoever to ensure sufficient accessible transportation to evacuate people with disabilities during an emergency.”
    • The City failed “to provide sufficiently accessible shelters” and to adequately “inform people with disabilities of the availability and location of accessible emergency services.” City personnel testified that they do not even know how many or which evacuation centers or shelters have accessibility features. One “survey” of shelters had been conducted by untrained custodial engineers, but the survey did not call for any measurements to be taken in restrooms (stating that “a bathroom is ADA accessible if it is marked with the universal wheelchair symbol”). The City seemed to focus on a “usable” (a term never defined) entrance, and considered shelters accessible if there was a usable entrance, regardless of whether other spaces or elements (such as toilet or bathing facilities) were accessible.
    • The City’s outreach and public education campaign to encourage personal preparedness offered a series of “Ready New York” guides, including one designed specifically for people with disabilities, but the guides provided “almost no information about the accessibility of the shelter system – and, to the extent they do, the information is incorrect.” One guide instructed people to call 3-1-1 to find an accessible shelter, and another implied that all shelters were accessible. “Thus, there appears to be no way for people with special needs to determine in advance which shelters or evacuation centers are accessible to them (a gap that is hardly surprising given that, as discussed above, the City itself does not know which evacuation centers are accessible).”

The judge concluded that the City “deprived people with disabilities of what they are entitled to under the law, not to mention the peace of mind that people without disabilities can have when it comes to the City’s preparedness plans.”

Let’s Get Ready for the Next Time

There are many lessons to be taken from this case, for communities large and small, for businesses, agencies, employers, families, friends, and individuals with disabilities. The basic lessons may be the same ones you’ve heard and read about before (plan! prepare! practice!), but New York’s recent experiences underscore the need for all of us to pay more attention to details, to recognize and question our assumptions, to learn from our experiences and continue to strive for improvement.

Emergencies and disasters may be unpredictable, but they should not be unexpected. As the judge in the New York case felt the need to point out more than once, too many of us, even at an institutional level, adopt a “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” attitude. We think we (or someone) will know what to do, will rise to the occasion. But an unplanned response, even the most heroic one, is not a substitute for a plan. The most effective, efficient responses flow from plans. 

If you don’t have a personal preparedness plan, make one. If you have one, review it and update it. Go over it with your family, friends, neighbors, or caregivers. Find out about preparedness plans in your school, workplace, and community. Are the plans detailed? Are they inclusive? Who’s accountable?

Be the mover and shaker in your workplace or organization. Speak up and get involved, volunteer to serve on an advisory committee, or participate in drills or training activities. Don’t give up if you find plans and preparations lacking. The best plans are those that are part of an ongoing process. We must be willing to keep working, practicing, learning, revising, updating, and practicing some more.


This is a publication of the Mid-Atlantic ADA Center funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research of the U.S. Dept. of Ed. (Grant # H133A110017). The opinions contained in this publication are those of the grantee and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Education.

© 2014 TransCen, Inc.