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Creating Equity for People with Disabilities in Disaster Resilience

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Headshot of Sarah Bacot
Photo of Sarah Bacot

By Sarah Bacot, a 2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow who serves in the Disaster Resilience Program. Sarah is hosted by Disability Rights Louisiana.

According to the United Nations, individuals with disabilities are two to four times more likely to die as the result of a natural disaster than those without disabilities. This is a jarring statistic, and one that highlights the ways that government organizations are unprepared to meet the needs of those with disabilities during and after disasters.

Last year, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a report assessing civil rights and protections during federal responses to Hurricanes Harvey and Maria. The report examined the ways that the current system leaves many marginalized communities underserved and at higher risk. Among other issues, disabled individuals reported that shelters lacked accessible bathrooms and showers.  According to the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, which issued its own report critiquing inequity in disaster response during Harvey and Maria (among other disasters), there were disabled survivors in Texas who could not access a shower in a shelter for weeks. Shelters also lacked accessible cots. Some individuals were denied when they attempted to seek shelter with service animals, being asked to provide certification documents for the animal, despite the fact that the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits this practice.

Even where assistance might have been available, there was often no way for individuals with disabilities to access or request it."

Sarah Bacot /
2022 Disaster Resilience Program Fellow

Even where assistance might have been available, there was often no way for individuals with disabilities to access or request it. The Commission’s report noted that during listening sessions with community members, representatives were told that those with disabilities faced barriers in reaching sites where they could request assistance from FEMA because there was a lack of accessible transportation, and because roads and pathways had been damaged and rendered impossible to navigate for wheelchair users or others with mobility issues. One person indicated that in a Houston shelter holding thousands of people, they “walked around for three hours with a sign that said ‘DEAF’ on it looking for deaf people.” As The Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies concluded “there was no other obvious way to connect deaf survivors with sign language interpreters and other communication accommodations.” When asked by the Commission about these barriers, FEMA “indicated that it was not aware of individuals that were not able to request aid because of a disability.”

During and after disasters, individuals with disabilities… are placed in institutional settings and often remain there…"

Sarah Bacot /
2022 Disaster Resilience Program Fellow

Disability advocacy groups have also raised the alarm that during and after disasters, individuals with disabilities who had previously lived in the community are placed in institutional settings and often remain there rather than returning to a community setting.  The National Center on Independent Living flagged this “disturbing trend” in “forced and elective” institutionalization post-disaster.  In one case, the individual chose to remain in a nursing home because “the person affected was tired of navigating resources for recovery and wanted to move to somewhere secure.” The National Council on Disability, which issued a report on ending the institutionalization of individuals with disabilities during and after disasters, identified several key issues contributing to heightened institutionalization, including the above-noted lack of access to services and a lack of training for those responsible for administering services. It also pointed out that the Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services often issues waivers to rules regarding institutionalization during disasters, permitting states to institutionalize more individuals with disabilities.

Creating a seat at the table for community members and disability-led organizations seems like a clear starting point…

Sarah Bacot /
2022 Disaster Resilience Program Fellow

Tackling inequity in disaster preparedness and response will not be an easy task, but various disability advocacy organizations have provided policy recommendations to address some of the many issues that have been identified. These recommendations include expanding FEMA’s application accessibility; implementing stronger community outreach from FEMA post-disaster; and training government officials on their legal obligations towards those with disabilities and on how to interact with individuals with disabilities generally. The Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies first suggests a reassessment of policy based on findings of inequity, and the formal development of partnerships with non-governmental, disability-led organizations. Others echo the call for the government to involve community members and disability-led organizations in planning and recovery. As government organizations at the federal and local level begin to assess their preparedness and recovery plans, creating a seat at the table for community members and disability-led organizations seems like a clear starting point on the journey to creating equity for disabled individuals in disaster resilience.

The Equal Justice Works Disaster Resilience Program is committed to ensuring that all disaster survivors have an equitable recovery and are resilient for the future. For more information about the program, please visit here.

The Disaster Resilience Program is currently funded American Red Cross, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy and the California Wildfires Recovery, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Danaher Foundation.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow