Washington, D.C., is the latest in a series of communities that have been called to the carpet for failure to adequately address the needs of people with disabilities in emergency planning. Lack of information about accessible shelters, poor emergency communications for people who are deaf and blind, and lack of accessible evacuation were among the claims cited in a federal class action suit filed against D.C. earlier this month.
“The lack of a specific emergency plan for people with disabilities is a matter of life and death for Washington, D.C.’s most vulnerable residents,” Julia Pinover Kupiec of Disability Rights Advocates, said in a September 9 news release. “People with disabilities face the greatest risk during disasters and suffer tragic consequences when governments fail to develop emergency plans for all citizens. The District cannot afford to wait for another disaster to strike before taking action.”
The Washington Lawyers’ Committee, the United Spinal Association, the DC Center for Independent Living, and three individuals joined Kupiec’s organization in filing the suit. The group is seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against the District and its mayor, Vincent Gray, according to the blog of the Legal Times (subscription may be required).
“What I would like is for the judge to realize that the D.C. emergency plan is lacking and that there do need to be changes made to the program so it can serve members of the community,” Alexandra Bennewith, vice president of government relations for United Spinal, told the blog. “That’s the whole point. There is not a plan right now.”
Years of research and policy directives have made some advances in emergency planning for people with disabilities, but not enough to ensure consistent and specific planning. In recent years those gaps have been highlighted in civil court. In November a federal judge ruled that New York City had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to make necessary accommodations for people with disabilities in evacuations.
“Hurricane Sandy dramatically demonstrated the consequences of this failure,” the New York Times quoted Judge Jesse Furman as writing in his ruling. “Plaintiffs provided substantial evidence that people with disabilities, unable to leave their buildings unassisted or to locate accessible transportation, remained trapped in high-rise buildings for days after the storm.”
A similar ruling in 2011 found the City of Los Angeles violated the ADA and put residents at risk by not having a specific plan addressing the needs of people with disabilities, according to the Associated Press.
“Because of the city's failure to address their unique needs, individuals with disabilities are disproportionately vulnerable to harm in the event of an emergency or disaster,” a U.S. District judge wrote in that ruling.
Neither ruling overlooked the formidable task emergency managers have in creating response plans that prepare their communities to face disaster. But the lawsuits seek to shine a light on vulnerabilities that need to be addressed, said Michael McManus, lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the D.C. suit.
“Not a lot of additional resources need to be spent, Just time and attention,” he told the Legal Times blog. “There is no consideration given to disabled people.”