Shriver Center to train emergency planners about needs of people with disabilities

April 07, 2015

When a town orders an evacuation in a severe storm, people with disabilities may need the type of help no one has foreseen, such as accessible transportation to a shelter. To make sure people receive the help they need, UMass Medical School’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center will launch an online course to teach emergency planners across the country the best strategies for emergency planning for and with individuals with disabilities.

“The biggest gap in emergency planning is that historically no one ever thought about people with disabilities,” said Nancy Shea, JD, MPA, a project coordinator at the Shriver Center, a unit within UMass Medical School’s Commonwealth Medicine division. Researchers hope to recruit at least 100 public health and public safety emergency planners from counties across the United States to take the course, which is expected to go online in late spring.

The pilot project is the national extension of the Shriver Center’s Active Planning project*, which trains city, town and county volunteer and professional responders in Massachusetts to address the needs of individuals with disabilities in emergency planning and response.

"The Active Planning project involved 1,000 participants throughout Massachusetts and was extremely successful," said Sue Wolf-Fordham, JD, principal investigator for the new training course. “With the new online course, we now have the opportunity to broaden that impact and reach local emergency planners around the country.”

The online course aims to teach emergency planners to recognize potential accessibility issues and work collaboratively with the local disability community to understand likely emergency needs. The online course also will teach strategies to hold the community stakeholder meetings that occurred locally in Massachusetts.

Individuals with disabilities, and other potentially vulnerable populations, have functional and access needs that must be included in emergency planning. Some may have mobility issues and use a wheelchair or other mobility device, while others may have vision or hearing disabilities, making it difficult to receive emergency instructions. Other people may have intellectual disabilities, autism or mental illness that could affect communication or the ability to quickly follow emergency instructions.

Communities need accessible vehicles to transport residents to shelters and shelters in accessible buildings, with resources for those with disabilities. Interpreters may be needed for those who don’t speak English or who communicate by American Sign Language. In widespread power outages, portable generators will be needed for the shelters, along with outlets for cellphones (which may be used by some with hearing disabilities for texting), assistive technology, and medical equipment.

A key to the success of the Active Planning project in Massachusetts was the collaboration and sharing of resources that developed during the community stakeholder meetings.

"The accommodations can be easy, creative and don't necessarily break the budget," Wolf-Fordham said.

In one town, officials realized they should have mobility equipment available during emergencies. At the community stakeholder meeting the local Council on Aging offered to loan the community its extra wheelchairs and walkers during emergencies. Another community had no patient lift – equipment used to help move people from a wheelchair to a toilet, tub or bed – and municipal officials were concerned the town couldn’t afford to buy one. An employee of a special education program told those attending the community meeting that the school had a patient lift the town could borrow.

In another community, after meeting with disability community representatives, first responders decided to help a special education school desensitize fears in children with autism. Responders planned to wear their uniforms to meet autistic children at the school, and help the children overcome their fear of uniformed authority figures. The first responders, in turn, would learn more about a population they might have to assist in a crisis.

“What we found over and over in these community meetings is the same sharing and willingness to provide resources and expertise,” Wolf-Fordham said.

Wolf-Fordham and Shea encourage emergency planners to include people with disabilities in drills.

“If included in preparedness drills, the lived experiences of people with disabilities can suggest new accommodations planners may not otherwise consider,” Shea said.

The success of the Active Planning project in Massachusetts has led to more thoughtful emergency planning for individuals with disabilities and local emergency planners have been the strongest allies for change.

Wolf-Fordham and Shea are optimistic the new online course, which features residents of the fictional Sheaford County planning for and holding a community stakeholder meeting, will help emergency planners across the country better understand the needs of this population.

“If these successful strategies work in Massachusetts, they may inspire other counties, cities and towns to collaborate,” Wolf-Fordham said. “For the most part, these are simple, common-sense solutions. We are working to effect a systems change, to strengthen community resilience for the entire community.” 

 *The Active Planning Project was originally funded through a grant from FEMA through the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security with funding from FEMA’s Grant Programs Directorate, U.S. Department of Homeland Security.  Points of view expressed in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of FEMA’s Grant Programs Directorate or the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.