Since the events of September 11, 2001, some of the air space over the nation's capital has been off limits to airplanes. Earlier this summer, a small, private plane ventured into this restricted air space. When attempts by authorities to get the pilot to turn around were unsuccessful, a decision was made to evacuate the office buildings on Capitol Hill and the White House. Police officers told everyone to leave their offices and "run for your lives," by some accounts.
A few days after this event, I attended a meeting, which was sponsored by the Federal Communications Commission and the National Organization on Disability, to discuss the issues related to emergency preparedness of people with disabilities. It was reported by a representative of the National Organization on Disability that when the offices were evacuated during the event described above, people with disabilities who were in the affected buildings were told to stay where they were and that someone would "come back for them after everyone else had been evacuated." Amazing! The expressions of horror that followed this revelation were unanimous. The agencies that had been involved in conducting this evacuation were not among those represented at this meeting, so we have no way of knowing what their rationale was. However, we all agreed that such a course of action was neither wise nor acceptable.
Unfortunate as it was, I think this incident serves as a wake-up call for governments, businesses, law enforcement and public safety agencies, and people with disabilities themselves. It draws attention to one more area where advocacy and public education about the needs and abilities of people with disabilities must be increased. In an emergency situation, where leaving someone behind to be attended to later could have fatal consequences for that individual, it is especially imperative that first responders have sufficient knowledge about the capabilities of people with disabilities to enable them to make informed judgments regarding appropriate evacuation methods for such people. It is also imperative that people with disabilities have access to information about emergency situations, so that they can make informed decisions regarding how to keep themselves safe.
Fortunately, a number of efforts are under way which will hopefully begin to address these needs. The White House has established an Interagency Coordinating Council on Emergency Preparedness and People with Disabilities, which recently issued a report to the president outlining the state of the country's preparedness and the concerns of a variety of federal agencies. Several agencies have also launched web sites wherein they have attempted to provide information about emergency preparedness and disability. Different agencies are taking different slants, depending on their focus, but the common thread running through all of the presentations is that all citizens need to be prepared, and that the needs of all citizens must be considered by emergency management personnel, before, during and after emergencies.
One of these sites was launched by the Office of Disability Employment Policy at the Department of Labor. It provides a template of guidelines for dealing with emergencies that occur in the workplace, specifically government buildings where people with disabilities may be employed. Dr. Roy Grizzard, in unveiling the web site, said that people with disabilities need assurance that their workplaces are safe, and that information is available that can provide this assurance if implemented. The target audience is government employers and their employees, but the information is applicable to private sector workplaces as well. Readers who have access to the Internet can check out this information at www.dol.gov/odep.programs/emergency.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has another web site, which contains advice on emergency preparedness, transportation accessibility, and evacuation methods for various modes of transportation, such as rail and transit systems. Disabled individuals can learn how to react in situations ranging from evacuations of mass transit systems to being trapped in a car during a blizzard or hurricane. The site also includes links to Department of Homeland Security web pages that provide information on preparing for specific emergencies, including natural disasters such as severe weather, fire and earthquakes, as well as man-made disasters such as spills of hazardous materials. Finally, the site provides information for transportation providers on how to respond to the unique needs of people with disabilities during an emergency. The web address for the new site is www.dotcr.ost.dot.gov/asp/emergencyprep.asp.
Another source for a great deal of information on this subject is www.dhs.gov/dhspublic/interapp/editorial/editorial_0660.xml. This is a web portal from which you can access information from a variety of agencies.
This is a good start, but there is still much to do, for all of us. One very practical need that remains largely unmet should be obvious to some of you. How do we get the information on all of these web sites into the hands of people with disabilities who don't have computer access? ACB staff members have been discussing this issue with the various agencies involved, and we are hopeful that some publications will be made available in other formats, but we cannot yet tell you when that will happen.
We are also aware that many additional communication issues remain unresolved. As many of you know, ACB has been urging the Federal Communications Commission for years to take action that would insure that emergency information that is displayed visually on TV screens would also be verbalized. We have incorporated language into the latest video description bill that would advance this effort significantly. Work is currently under way to evaluate the state of the technology that could make this feasible, and to get this information into the hands of decision-makers at the FCC and in Congress. However, it is clear that a lot of work needs to be done on both the technological and political fronts in order for us to have adequate access to emergency warning information.
The efforts that I have discussed thus far are all taking place at the national level. What about the states and local communities? How much do the first responders in our local communities know about appropriately assisting people with visual impairments during and after emergencies? How prepared are people with visual impairments to deal with those same emergencies? Since most emergency situations are experienced locally, it is imperative that local citizens and the personnel charged with responding to emergencies have the information they need to act and react effectively. However, there is a great deal of concern that much of the information that is being gathered at the national level is staying at that level and not getting into the hands of those who need it most. We have received several phone calls in the ACB office from individuals who have an interest in emergency preparedness, but who say that nobody in their state or local organizations is attempting to address the needs of people with disabilities as they develop their emergency plans. In addition, it has been estimated by the National Organization on Disability that 58 percent of people with disabilities have no emergency preparedness plans of their own.
So what can we do? Here's a suggestion. Just as affiliates have committees that address transportation and technology issues, how about establishing one that deals with emergency preparedness issues? These committees could then work with local agencies and provide assistance to them in understanding and addressing the needs of people in their communities who have disabilities. Individuals might also attend local city council or public safety commission meetings to raise issues about emergency preparedness for people with disabilities.
ACB staff members have worked with government agencies, private entities and disability organizations to address these issues, and we will continue to do so. However, since emergency situations will potentially impact all of us at one time or another, and all of us would benefit from being more prepared for them, I believe this is a topic that should receive closer attention by all of us, both at the very personal, practical level and at the public policy level. I think it would be great if affiliates would embrace this issue and treat it as if it is as important as pedestrian safety, because one of these days, it could very well be.
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