ASTHO Specialist Program Makes Lasting Preparedness Improvements for People with Disabilities

May 29, 2023 | Margaret Nilz

woman-signing-during-virtual-meeting.jpgASTHO, through funding from CDC, has been helping jurisdictions prepare for and respond to the needs of people with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. As part of this program, disability and preparedness specialists were placed in 16 states and two territorial health agencies between January 2021 to July 2022. Specialists worked with these agencies to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities in public health emergency preparedness. ASTHO has been talking to specialists throughout the program through the Embedded series.

The Program’s Beginnings

The specialists used two assessment tools to get a sense of the landscape of disability inclusion in each jurisdiction. These assessments addressed health agency capacity for disability inclusion and disability partnerships. The specialists used these assessments to identify gaps and created improvement plans to address the gaps identified. Across all participating jurisdictions, specialists identified nearly 600 areas of opportunity for improvement.

ASTHO supported specialists the executing their improvement plans in various ways, including hosting monthly learning community sessions. Using feedback from the community sessions, ASTHO held topic-specific group discussions, hosted role-specific training, and created several technical resources.

At the program’s onset, specialists identified that their respective jurisdictions often had a limited understanding of the disability community or internal capacity to address the needs of the disability community. However, throughout the program’s life, jurisdictions expanded their knowledge of outstanding needs, overcame barriers to success, and increased buy-in. Specialists reported that they had the skills necessary to assist in building capacity and preparedness in this role, but making lasting changes depended on access to the disability community, agency resources, and leadership buy-in.

Community Partnerships Shine

Developing partnerships with the disability community was a key goal of this program. Most specialists reported developing relationships with new organizations throughout the program, such as their state governor’s councils on disabilities, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, American Disabilities Act coordinators, the American Red Cross, Best Buddies, AARP, developmental disabilities councils, Developmental Disabilities Institute, Ability360, the Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and Autism Speaks.

Specialists engaged with partner organizations through stakeholder calls, resource development, vaccine communications, listening sessions, articles, and presentations. In addition to partner engagement, specialists participated in several task forces and workgroups to address health equity, COVID-19 operations, emergency management coalitions, and grant planning.


The specialist program met its chief goals, including achieving positive communication with internal agency staff and connection with the disability community. Throughout the program, specialists identified several barriers to success, including priority changes, agency capacity, staffing changes, buy-in, and disconnection to the jurisdiction department. The specialists learned several critical lessons including the importance of adaptation, flexibility, and consistency; the value of stakeholder engagement; and how specialist and department training can set up future efforts for success.

Overall, this program has been instrumental in promoting the inclusion of people with disabilities in public health emergency preparedness. It has helped specialists identify gaps and opportunities for improvement, develop partnerships with the disability community, and make positive changes in participating jurisdictions.

All program participants voiced hopes that the program would continue, observing that gains made through the program would likely be lost without additional funding, support, and the ability to retain a disability and preparedness specialist. Throughout the program, specialists and supervisors shared their perspectives on the program with ASTHO.

“Our department leadership has fully embraced my role and leans on me for subject matter expertise, guidance, and creativity to ensure people with disabilities, families and caregivers are represented in our pressing challenges.”

– ASTHO Disability Preparedness Specialist

Moving Forward

Although specialists have finished their charge, ASTHO continues to assist jurisdictions and build the capacity to plan for and respond to the needs of people with disabilities during emergencies. In 2023, ASTHO will support jurisdictions through a series of webinars on disability inclusion and communication strategies for success through blog posts, briefs, and manuscripts. Programs such as this can continue to make lasting and meaningful changes for the disability community during public health emergencies and beyond.