Examining the Americans With Disabilities Act in Emergency Responses

December 02, 2020 | Adrianna Evans

On Dec. 3, the International Day of People with Disabilities commemorates disability rights and brings awareness to essential issues for those with disabilities by promoting the “well-being of persons with disabilities in all spheres of society.” This year’s International Day of People with Disabilities is notable in the United States, as it coincides with the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA protects people with disabilities from discrimination in employment, in state and local government services, public accommodations, telecommunications, and other areas of life. The law defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities” and establishes a uniform standard across the country for the access to services by people with disabilities.

Disabilities and Preparedness

While the ADA laid a critical foundation for disability rights, the work to ensure equitable access to services and needs continues, including access to state and local emergency preparedness and response activities like crisis communication, access to resources, allocation of vaccine and other medical countermeasures, and transportation.

During emergencies people with disabilities often experience a disproportionate burden to people without disabilities. After-action reports for previous emergency responses—such as Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Maria, and the California wildfires—underscore the need for improving response activities for people with disabilities, like government authorities using qualified sign language interpreters for people with hearing impairments and adequate technology used for disaster recovery services for people with vision disabilities.

More recently, we see that people with disabilities experience significant risks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Research shows that people with disabilities are more likely to have conditions associated with COVID-19 severity and mortality. People with disabilities are also more likely to have a higher case fatality rate.

Additionally, people with disabilities may live in residential care facilities where outbreaks are common, putting them at increased risk of exposure. Negative biases about the value of quality of life have led to crisis standards of care guidelines that move resources away from people with disabilities.

Large percentages of Black people with disabilities have the types of chronic, underlying health conditions like obesity and diabetes that make them particularly vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. These chronic conditions can lead to cardiovascular and respiratory problems that make fighting off COVID-19 very difficult. The barriers to COVID-19 risk reduction for people with disabilities require an intentional approach to safely overcome.

Recognizing the need for improvement, states are adopting laws that aim to increase equity for people with disabilities in preparedness and response activities. In 2019, California enacted AB 477, which ensures their emergency communications, shelters, and other resources comply with the ADA. This law also requires integration of people with disabilities in emergency planning.

Nevada passed AB 129, which requires certain first responders to complete training on how to interact with people with developmental disabilities in order to receive their license or certification. In 2020, Virginia enacted HB 420, which requires the Department of Emergency Management to create emergency plans for people with disabilities.

Preparing for the Future

To fulfill the promise of equity laid out in the ADA, people with disabilities must be engaged in preparedness work to identify the needs and barriers surrounding these activities. ASTHO is working with the CDC, National Association of County and City Health Officials, and the Association for University Centers on Disabilities to improve the capacity of jurisdictions to address the needs of people with disabilities in preparedness and response planning.

Through this partnership, ASTHO will place disability and preparedness specialists within 12-15 jurisdictions to contribute to COVID-19 response planning and beyond. These specialists will work to improve preparedness and response activities for people with disabilities by using their expertise to bridge the disability and preparedness fields and contributing to more equitable preparedness and response plans.

Whether through policy, programmatic activities, engagement, or other innovative methods, state and territorial health agencies can play a role in the continued improvement of preparedness and response activities for people with disabilities.