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Together we are stronger

What happens (legally) when you do not include people with disabilities in community emergency plans

19 Jul 2021 7:53 AM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

By Gregory L. Walterhouse, Associate Teaching Professor, Bowling Green State University, IPSA Member

After allegedly failing to include persons with disabilities in emergency response plans, or having deficient plans for equal access to emergency services by disabled persons, a number of public entities have been sued. The basis for most of the lawsuits were alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

In short, under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, it is unlawful to deny any person, based on disability, who is otherwise qualified, access to benefits from any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. While identifying and accounting for people with disabilities within a community can present challenges, it is not a valid reason for not including the disabled in emergency response plans. The following cases provide insight on how to develop emergency plans that are inclusive of disabled persons.

New York City

Plaintiffs brought a class action lawsuit against the City of New York for failing to address the needs of people with disabilities in the City’s planning and response to various emergencies including Hurricane Sandy.

The court found that the City violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act, and the New York City Human Rights Law by failing to provide people with disabilities meaningful access to the City emergency preparedness program.

Specifically, the City’s evacuation plans did not accommodate the needs of people with disabilities with respect to evacuation from high-rise buildings.

Second, the City’s plan did not provide for accessible transportation for disable persons.

Third, the City’s shelter plan did not provide for architectural or programmatic accessibility to accommodate the disabled.

Fourth, the City had no provisions in their emergency plan to ensure persons with disabilities who were unable to leave their buildings were able to access City services after occurrence of a disaster.

Fifth, the City did not provide for accessible communications at after-disaster resource distribution sites.

Finally, the City lacked sufficient plans to provide people with disabilities information on the existence and location of accessible services in an emergency.

City and County of Los Angeles

The City and County of Los Angeles were also defendants in a similar class action lawsuit that was resolved by settlement agreement without trial. The settlement agreement is 167 pages in length and without going into the minute details of the agreement, Appendix B, Workplan Elements, provides a good summary of the main areas of focus for the settlement agreement and main deliverables.

First, under the mass care heading is developing a mass care and shelter annex in the overall emergency plan and maintaining a list of shelter sites in unincorporated areas of the county. 

Second, building a network of stakeholders, establishing and maintaining contact with key stakeholders and planning and conducting workshops and conferences.

Third, under community education is the completion of a Specific Needs Awareness Planning (SNAP) strategic plan, increasing SNAP registration, increasing SNAP operability, and supporting evacuation planning using SNAP.

Fourth under communications is conducting a systems assessment and formulating recommendations and providing forums or workshops.

Fifth, is to make a reasonable effort to conduct, participate in and provide guidance on inclusive drills and exercises.

Sixth, is to develop a recovery plan annex and conduct training. Seventh is to update the current Access and Functional Needs (AFN) annex.

Beyond major cities

Named in a lawsuit among other defendants was Township of Warren New Jersey, with a 2010 U.S. Census population of 15,311 for allegedly failing to provide Mr. Smith who suffered from a disability, with equal access to emergency services that were available to non-disabled persons before, during and after Super Storm Sandy.

In Shirey v. City of Alexandria School Board, the parents of a student filed a complaint in federal court alleging defects in the school’s emergency plans with regard to evacuations of students with disabilities during bomb threats and fire drills. 

Guidance by the U.S. Department of Justice

In addition to the New York and Los Angeles cases, the publication Making Community Emergency Preparedness and Response Programs Accessible to People with Disabilities published by the U.S. Department of Justice provides guidance for local governments, which includes the following. Provide notification systems to inform persons who are deaf or hard of hearing of impending disasters.

These could include teletypewriter messages (TTY), text messages, email, and direct door-to-door contact and open captioning on local television. Provide plans for persons with mobility, vision, hearing deficits, mental illness, cognitive and other disabilities to safely self-evacuate or evacuate with the assistance of others. Evacuation planning includes identifying accessible modes of transportation including mass-transit and school buses. Develop and maintain a confidential registry of persons who need assistance with evacuation and publicize the availability of the registry.

Review community shelters for accessibility including parking lots, exterior and interior routes, entrances, toilet rooms and any other potential barriers to accessibility.  

Plan to staff shelters with persons who can attend to the special needs of disabled persons and can accommodate service animals. As many shelters as possible should be equipped with emergency standby generators and refrigerators to accommodate life-sustaining medical devices and preserving medications that require refrigeration.

In addition, shelter staff needs training on alternate forms of communication including exchanging written notes, posting written announcements, reading printed material to persons who are blind or have vision deficit, and providing staff proficient in sign language.


While the guidance provided by these lawsuits and the DOJ are not all-inclusive, they provide a solid foundation for the development of emergency response plans that include the needs of persons with disabilities. Emergency response plan development must include input from all stakeholders and be customized based on local needs of disabled persons.

About the Author

Greg Walterhouse is an Associate Teaching Professor in the Fire Administration and Masters in Public Administration programs at Bowling Green State University. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in Management from Oakland University, a Master’s degree in Legal Studies from the University of Illinois and a Master’s degree in Management from Central Michigan University, and a Specialist Degree in Educational Leadership from Bowling Green State University. Before joining BGSU, Greg had over 35 years experience in various aspects of public safety with 18 years in upper management. The author may be contacted at

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