Two leading US civil rights groups, Disability Rights Advocates and the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled have filed a lawsuit claiming that the City of New York and Mayor Michael Bloomberg placed disabled people in life-threatening situations by failing to take their “unique needs” into consideration when planning for emergencies and disasters. The organisations taking the action claim that major disasters in New York City such as September 11th and Hurricane Irene have highlighted how the city is not prepared to meet the needs of its 900,000 citizens with disabilities during times of emergencies.

During the recent response to Hurricane Irene, there were reports that 75% of the designated emergency shelters in New York were not fully accessible to wheelchair users, the televised emergency announcements did not include American Sign Language and the evacuation maps from the city were not useable by persons with no or low vision. Additionally the modes of transport used for evacuation included school buses, which did not have lifts for wheelchair users.

At the centre of the law suit filed by the DRA and the BDIC is the claim that the city is violating federal and state anti-discrimination laws by failing to make emergency plans, shelters, announcements and transportation fully accessible to individuals with physical disabilities. See here for full details of the complaint. Both organisations are seeking a court order forcing the city to revamp its emergency preparation plan to account for the needs of persons with disabilities, including accessible transportation, shelter, communication, notification and assistance during disaster recovery. Furthermore, personal accounts given of the difficulties included the story of a disabled woman who was turned away from an emergency shelter, as the keys to open the gate to access the ramp could not be found.

This is not the first time legal action has been taken in the US on inadequate emergency preparedness for persons with disabilities. A number of cases were taken in the aftermath of both Hurricane Katrina and Rita, focusing on the inadequacy of the emergency responses, which led to loss of life and resulted in persons with disabilities who were displaced from their homes, placed in inappropriate and inaccessible shelters. See here for details. The loss of life and danger faced by persons with disabilities during Katerina was highlighted by Marcie Roth, Director of the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination (FEMA) in a written statement to the House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Emergency Communications, Preparedness, and Response. Roth recounted how she had spent time on the phone with a disabled woman trying to assist her in her attempts to evacuate from her upper 9th Ward New Orleans apartment. Roth told the Committee that despite the disabled woman calling for help for three days, she remained trapped in her apartment and she eventually died after her apartment was flooded. To read Roth’s full statement, see here.

To-date, most of the focus on inclusive emergency preparedness has happened at international level in places far away from the metropolitan cities of what we call the developed world. See here for previous blogs on this issue. Our role in these overseas disasters generally is about donations, deployment of volunteers and shipments of food and clothes.

However, what is clear now is that disasters be they natural or man-made happen now on our own doorsteps and the need for emergency response plans is becoming part of planning for every city. However, six years after Katrina, again with Hurricane Irene, the disability community continues to remain on the periphery of emergency response and evacuations. As climate change continues and weather systems brings chaos to cities, the vulnerability of people with disabilities and other groups such as older people increases. There is now a real need to focus on how city planners make sure emergency responses are inclusive and people with disabilities are facilitated to evacuate safely.  Countries who have ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities are now required to ensure that people with disabilities are protected in situations of risk (see Article 11). Additionally in the case of the US, federal agencies are required by law to include persons with disabilities in their emergency responses. For example see here for FEMA’s ‘Accommodating People with Disabilities in Disasters: A Reference Guide to Federal Law’, which lays out the specific legal obligations that must be adhered to with respect to emergency planning and disability.

The groups taking this action hope that it progresses the rights of persons with disabilities to have an adequate and appropriate emergency plan prepared by their city planner’s. To find out more details about the lawsuit, see here

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Written by Mary Keogh