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The Whole Community: Individuals with Disabilities in Disaster Response and Recovery

In 2017, our nation experienced a historic and unprecedented disaster season where communities were severely impacted by hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and wildfires in California.  In recognition of the one year anniversary of these disasters, we remember and honor the resilience of individuals and communities in their recovery, particular those with disabilities and others with access and functional needs.

We want to encourage everyone, moving forward, to be prepared—work with family, neighbors and friends to build a community support network, and have a plan to check on each other after a disaster occurs.  Individuals in the community are always the true first responders in disasters; you may be the help to those who may need it until help arrives.

The DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) has a role to safeguard and enforce civil rights laws across the Department.  As such, among other priorities, CRCL works to fully integrate these laws into disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. 

Prior to, during, and following a disaster, CRCL engages with impacted communities and provides information to the public and stakeholders to protect individuals with disabilities and the whole community.  To accomplish this, CRCL works in close collaboration with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other federal partner agencies to support state and local frontline efforts and ensure nondiscrimination.

Earlier this year CRCL, in partnership with FEMA’s Office of Disability Integration and Office of Equal Rights, embarked on a multi-city tour to dialogue directly with disability stakeholders in areas impacted by the 2017 disasters.  Over several months, we held listening sessions in Texas, Florida, California, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

At these listening sessions individuals with disabilities, representatives from local advocacy groups, and other stakeholders were able to provide feedback to DHS officials on their experiences, including both challenges and things that worked well, with disaster response and recovery.  The discussion at these sessions covered a range of cross-cutting issues noted during the sessions, including:

  • improving communication access for people with disabilities
  • integrating individuals with disabilities into planning and preparedness efforts at all levels of government
  • ensuring emergency shelters are accessible and are resourced and prepared for the whole community
  • and strengthening access to FEMA resources and programs before, during, and after disaster strikes

CRCL will use feedback from these listening sessions to share more widely local best practices, and improve assistance and training, and will continue to coordinate with federal, state, territorial, and local partners to address recent challenges of those with access and functional needs in future disaster response and recovery. 

CRCL also offers technical assistance to states and territories on meeting their civil rights obligations, and provides information and resources for communities on its Civil Rights in Emergencies and Disasters webpage.  This new webpage features summaries of each listening session, training materials and webinars, and other information from DHS and federal partners.

We encourage you to prepare! A true culture of preparedness begins with you—create a disaster plan for your family, and consider how you can assist your neighbors and loved ones that have access and functional needs.  FEMA and provide several resources to create a plan, and preparedness tips for diverse communities and individuals with disabilities



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