November 2013 saw our third major city lose a major federal case in federal court by the Department of Justice (DOJ) for lack of inclusion and proper response to individuals with disabilities in emergency preparedness and response. Through the diligent efforts of the Center for Disability New York (CIDNY) and the Brooklyn Center for Independent Living (and two brave souls), the New York City’s (NYC) violation of federal law was exposed. The ramifications of this can have immense impact on every municipality in the nation. Prior to the final verdict, the DOJ noted in the statement of interest (5/10/13)  “ Unfortunately, despite the obvious importance of accounting for the unique needs of individuals with disabilities in planning for emergencies, New York City’s emergency plans, like many state and local emergency plans throughout the nation, fail to do so.”

NYC could have avoided the embarrassment of this lawsuit. In 2001, after the World Trade Center disaster, CIDNY advised NYC on the problems people with disabilities faced, providing examples of how the city’s actions violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). CIDNY ( worked with the NYC Office of Emergency Management (NYC OEM), heading a “Special needs” work group that included educating consumers on how to prepare for disasters. In 2004, CIDNY wrote a monograph for the city entitled “Lessons Learned from the World Trade Center: Emergency Preparedness for People with Disabilities in New York.” When Hurricane Irene struck in 2011, CIDNY identified barriers and proposed solutions, but the city did not respond to their reports of inaccessible shelters or personal accounts of individuals locked out of sites as the storm bore down.

Only then did CIDNY and Brooklyn Center for Independent Living decide to sue, filing a lawsuit in federal court on September 26, 2011.

When Hurricane Sandy struck, the actions, or lack thereof, of NYC were confirmed that they had not learned the lessons of the World Trade Center, bombings, September 11th, and Hurricane Irene. New evidence of ADA violations, including lack of accessible transportation and shelters were added to the record.

In September 2013, the Honorable Judge Jesse Furman issued a federal court decision that holds that New York City fails to address the needs of people with disabilities in emergency planning.

“We are proud of the court’s decision in this critical civil rights matter”, Susan Dooha, CIDNY executive director said. “For over a decade we have warned the city about its failure to adequately plan for people with disabilities in emergencies. The court decision will put the city on the road to ending needless suffering of New Yorkers with disabilities during disasters.”

 In February 2011, New York State Independent Living Council (NYSIL C) proposed a comprehensive plan that would have addressed all needs across both the disability community and municipalities, with an emphasis on NYC, to ensure all were prepared. Between conference call and in room attendees, some 50 people were involved. Handshakes and head nods were plentiful and all looked good until NYC OEM commissioner, in one fell swoop, said NO.

June Kailes, a nationally recognized expert in emergency preparedness and response for individuals with disabilities, played an active role with the lawsuits in Oakland and Los Angeles. “I make a big deal about lessons learned, that term drives me up a wall. They’re not learned until they are applied and practiced, become part of the fiber of what we do. We’re not learning lessons until we made them our own, so it is business as usual (until we apply them).”

June was hired by the city of Oakland to do staff analysis, training, review of their mass care plan, and update their approach. She did a webinar on this, which can be referenced at her website ( Oakland didn’t feel they deserved the suit but they did see it as an opportunity to learn how to properly respond. “There were positive results in what they were able to strengthen in terms of their planning and inclusiveness.”

Administrator Fugate noted in his address to a Senate Ad Hoc committee “My experience tells me if we wait and plan for people with disabilities, we fail.” That was August 4, 2009. The post Katrina Act, recognizing the inordinate amount of people with disabilities that died in the hurricane, brought about the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination within FEMA. The intent was obvious, municipalities and emergency planners excluded the disability community and the ultimate price was paid. ‘Nothing about us without us’ may be most significant when it comes to emergency preparedness.

Now it’s your turn, this was never about what are they doing for me, when are they coming to get me, or some registry that has my name on a list so I must be set when the flood waters are coming. Conversely, this is a two way street. Are you prepared? Have you reached out to your municipality to see what their plans are? Have you asked if the disability community has been included in planning?

Emergency Management involves many aspects, too extensive to address in this piece, however, understanding that the response begins with access and functional needs, the appropriate term that defines the population that would have the greatest needs in an emergency. June notes “People with disabilities and others with access and functional needs” is inclusive of broad and diverse groups of people who also directly benefit from physical, communication, and program access. This includes people who may or may not meet the definitions of civil rights laws or some of the other 60 plus diverse definitions of disability used in this country. 

By accommodating the needs of “people with disabilities” Emergency managers can address the anticipated needs of a much larger segment of people, estimated to be up to 50% of the population.

With the advocacy efforts laid forth in New York, Los Angeles, and Oakland, expect a trickle down effect across municipalities. In New York, NYSILC has partnered with Albany Law School disability law clinic to reach out to counties to inquire as to emergency plans and their inclusion of response to IWDs. Emergency managers are concerned that they are not compliant, which calls IWDs to begin the outreach to inform through presence on committees and boards.

Tools, resources, materials, videos, and regulations exist for every facet of emergency response relative to individuals with disabilities. It’s up to disability advocates to introduce them, but we can’t face barriers of resistance or ignorance, or a combination of the two. Some sites that provide this information are the New York State Independent Living Council (, Niagara University’s First Responders Disability Awareness Training (, Temple University’s Institute on Disabilities (, University of Maryland’s Center for Health and Homeland Security ( and FEMA’s site specific to disability response (

David Whalen is the project director of the First Responders Disability Awareness Training project at Niagara University and the founder of Disability Awareness Training, Access Buffalo, and Town Hall Training. He currently is a member of the NYS Independent Living Council and chairs the emergency preparedness sub-committee for NYSILC and sits on the NYS Office of Emergency Management human services committee.

Susan Dooha and June Kailes contributed to this article.