Impact Feature Issue on Disaster Preparedness and People with Disabilities

Serving and Protecting:
The Role of Disability and Aging Organizations in Disaster Planning


June Isaacson Kailes is Associate Director with the Center for Disability Issues and the Health Professions at Western University of Health Sciences, Pomona, California.

All too often in emergencies, the concerns of people with disabilities and seniors are overlooked or swept aside. In areas ranging from the accessibility of emergency information to the evacuation plans, great urgency surrounds the need for responding to these concerns in all planning, preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation activities. Prior planning will help prevent poor performance.

Lessons Learned but Not Applied

Lessons documented regarding disability and aging populations during previous disasters often don’t get incorporated into subsequent planning, preparedness, response, and recovery activities, hence they are not learned (United States Government Accountability Office, 2006). Segments of disability communities continually report problems participating in and benefiting from emergency services over many decades (National Council on Disability, 2005). The 2005 hurricanes in the Gulf States reinforced these documented lessons regarding management, policy, and training issues identified in many previous large-scale disasters such as Hurricane Andrew, the Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes, and the September 11th terrorist attacks. The catastrophic scope and impact on seniors, people with disabilities, and those with medical needs in the Gulf States underscores and amplifies the issues and makes them all the more evident (National Organization on Disability, 2005). 

Although local, state, regional, and federal government agencies play a major role in disaster planning and response, these recent events confirm what has been recognized for decades: traditional response and recovery systems are often not able to successfully meet many human needs. The usual approach to delivering emergency services cannot provide many of the essential services needed by people with disabilities and activity limitations (National Council on Disability, 2005; National Organization on Disability, 2005). 

The Importance of Disability and Aging Expertise

Disability and aging organizations represent a vast array of national, state, regional, and local human and social service organizations, faith-based organizations, and neighborhood associations that are critical to the disaster response and recovery process. Disaster service workers could never adequately replicate the expertise, skill sets, and resources of these organizations. Disability and aging organizations have unique and credible connections with the people they support and experience with delivering services to them. Their unique skills and understanding are invaluable. But unfortunately, they are an often-overlooked resource for emergency planning, preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation activities. For example, one shelter manager involved in the Katrina response complained about the length of time it took to locate assistive devices: “…it would have been nice to have ‘someone’ local provide a list of resources in the area, rather than taking staff hours on phones all day trying to find equipment.” Knowledgeable disability and aging organizations could have accomplished this task more efficiently, freeing shelter management staff for other activities, had they been plugged into the system with an assigned task and role (National Organization on Disability, 2005).

Disaster response commonly reflects no use or under-use of help from disability and aging organizations (and sometimes ignored offers of help). There is often no designated entity or individual to “own” and coordinate disability and aging issues. Disability and aging community-based organizations report difficulty in gaining access to emergency management authorities to coordinate response and service delivery. This leads to well-intentioned but misguided actions, only adding to the management difficulties on the ground (National Organization on Disability, 2005).

To correct this situation, disability and aging organizations must be included as partners in working with local, regional, state, and national public and private response agencies. And while structural changes are needed on the part of emergency response agencies to bring this about – such as establishment of a point person at the executive level of the agency to provide leadership, guidance, and coordination of all emergency preparedness, response, and recovery operations in relation to disability and aging populations – there are also steps that disability and aging organizations can take to establish or strengthen that partnership. Three strategies community organizations can engage in are 1) cross training, 2) integration of disaster work into their missions and funding, and 3) advocating for creation of a state point-person position.

Cross Training

A first step in increasing partnerships between disability and aging organizations and emergency response agencies is to share knowledge with each other. Disability and aging advocates and service providers need to strengthen their understanding of emergency management systems if they are to have a role in shaping plans and responding to disasters. To improve effectiveness they need to participate in activities that provide orientations to emergency management organizations and structure, as well as to the roles of traditional recovery organizations such as FEMA, the American Red Cross, and other Voluntary Agencies Active in Disaster (VOAD). Likewise, emergency managers in government agencies need to strengthen their understanding of disability and aging populations and of the organizations that serve them. Toward these ends emergency response agencies and disability and aging organizations should engage in cross orientation, training, and planning activities.

Integration into Mission

A second way in which disability and aging organizations can be effectively involved in emergency preparedness is through integrating disaster planning, preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation activities into their missions, along with allocating and seeking funding to support such activities. By establishing disaster activities as a priority, organizations strengthen their position as a partner in emergency preparedness, response, and recovery. They equip themselves to be an asset to emergency response agencies and to engage in activities such as augmenting government services during disasters, participating in community networking and planning (including building relationships with other disability and aging organizations to coordinate efforts), sharing back-up staff and resources across agencies during disasters, participating in their community emergency response teams and citizen corps, and becoming an integral part of the community response system. Disability and aging organizations can also, by integrating disaster preparedness into their missions, be involved in creating and compiling guidance materials for emergency response agencies on the needs of people with disabilities, and in developing and distributing emergency preparedness materials for people with disabilities, their families, and support staff, including materials that have disability specific content and are accessible to people with limitations in hearing, vision, mobility, speech and cognition. And they can help those whom they serve to develop individual and family emergency preparedness plans.

Advocating for a State Point Person

In addition to the previous suggestions, disability and aging organizations can advocate strongly for the creation of a structure in state emergency services that ensures inclusion of people with disabilities. One proposal is creation of a state-level position that could be titled Access and Functional Services Coordinator within a state office of emergency services (Kailes, 2007). The position would provide oversight to ensure that state and local emergency planning incorporates the diverse needs of people with disabilities and functional limitations in all preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation activities. It could facilitate appointments of qualified representatives from disability and aging organizations to local and state emergency planning committees, provide sustained funding incentives that allow disability and aging organizations to integrate disaster work into their missions, and oversee Functional Assessment and Service Teams (FAST), which are corps of trained personnel from disability, aging and other community organizations who are ready to respond to and deploy to disaster areas to assist people with disabilities and functional limitations. Creation of such a position in each state could help to facilitate collaboration between disability, aging, and emergency organizations, and keep the partnership process and momentum going.


  • Kailes, J. I. (2007). Access and functional services coordinator: California Governor’s Office of Emergency Service proposed deputy director position (Version 3). Ponoma, CA: Center for Disability Issues and the Health Professions, Western University of Health Sciences.
  • National Council on Disability. (2005). Saving lives: Including people with disabilities in emergency planning. Retrieved from
  • National Organization on Disability. (2005). Report on Special Needs Assessment for Katrina Evacuees (SNAKE) Project. Washington, DC: Author.
  • U.S. Government Accountability Office. (2006). Statement by Comptroller General David M. Walker on GAO’s preliminary observations regarding preparedness and response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (GAO-06-365R). Retrieved from