Following Hurricane Sandy, which forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate as it made landfall in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States in 2012, staff at the Alliance Center for Independence (ACI) in Edison, New Jersey, heard from disabled community members about the inaccessibility of emergency shelters.

“When Sandy hit, so many people with disabilities died in their apartments because shelters weren’t accessible,” says Carole Tonks, ACI’s executive director. About half of those who died as a result of Hurricane Sandy were aged 75 or older. Many had access or functional needs.

After seeing access issues at emergency shelters creating life-threatening situations for so many disabled people during Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy, Tonks and her team devised a plan to help mitigate future problems. Instead of waiting for a real emergency to learn about and troubleshoot community needs, ACI brought together local disabled people and emergency management professionals from state agencies and nonprofit organizations like the American Red Cross (ARC) for an overnight shelter simulation exercise. The group practiced each step of an overnight emergency shelter experience, including traveling to the shelter using various modes of transportation, registering on arrival, and eating and sleeping in the shelter dormitory.

The goal of the simulation was twofold. First, familiarize members of the disability community with an overnight shelter experience. Second, give emergency management personnel and shelter volunteers opportunities to learn from disabled community members. The latter is vital because one of the foremost reasons that emergency shelters and emergency response plans, in general, fail to meet the needs of disabled people is that disabled people tend to be excluded from the planning process. Their exclusion is often due to access barriers or stigmatizing misconceptions that disabled people are less intelligent than their peers or do not have skills or ideas to contribute.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) launched an Office of Disability Integration and Coordination in 2010, aiming to maximize the inclusion of people with disabilities in disaster preparedness, response, and recovery efforts. It also developed a model for Core Advisory Groups, which advocates have since formed nationwide to encourage collaboration among members of the disability community and emergency management professionals. However, disabled people remain underrepresented in official emergency management spaces, and much of the critical support available to the disability community during and after disasters comes from independent organizations, many of them disability-led, which are forced to plug gaps in government response plans with limited resources.

Read the full article about disability justice by Marianne Dhenin at YES!Magazine .