Emergency preparedness and response for disabled individuals: implications of recent litigation

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Date: Spring 2015
From: Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics(Vol. 43, Issue 1)
Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,103 words
Lexile Measure: 1770L

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In an emergency, challenges faced by disabled individuals may be exacerbated by ineffective communication, power outages, transportation shortcomings, and inhospitable shelters. (1) During Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Gulf Coast shelters did not routinely provide closed captioning or sign language interpreters (2); for individuals with auditory disabilities, understanding instructions issued in these shelters was extremely difficult. Individuals with mobility-related disabilities experienced challenges evacuating from their homes due to public transportation that could not accommodate wheelchairs. After the hurricanes, difficulties arose in identifying wheelchair-accessible trailers and in communicating with disabled trailer residents. (3) Failing to anticipate these challenges intensifies the disadvantaged situation of those with disabilities during an emergency. (4)

These documented incidents are particularly troubling because federal and state laws contain protections for disabled individuals that remain in place during emergencies. (5) Such laws acknowledge the demands of social justice: they ensure the needs of those at risk of being further disadvantaged during an emergency (i.e., disabled individuals) are addressed before or simultaneously with the needs of other community members. Despite these long-standing ethical priorities and legal protections, recent litigation has confirmed that some localities have failed to sufficiently account for disabled individuals' needs in emergencies. This article considers two lawsuits against the cities of Los Angeles and New York regarding their treatment of disabled individuals in emergency plans and processes. It then discusses lessons learned from these cases for other localities.

Legal Protections for Disabled Individuals

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects disabled individuals from discrimination in varied contexts. (6) For localities, the most relevant portion of the ADA is Title II, which prohibits discrimination by public entities. (7) To prevent discrimination, the public entity should provide a "reasonable accommodation" for a disabled individual. While the ADA and its accompanying regulations do not explicitly discuss emergencies, these laws remain in effect during an emergency and, thus, localities must comply with them. (8) State governments have passed similar laws with disability protections, allowing them to implement and enforce nondiscrimination provisions. (9)

Recent Litigation

During the last five years, two large U.S. cities have been sued over their alleged failure to account for disabled individuals in emergencies. Both cities were found to have violated federal and state laws that protect disabled individuals from discrimination.

Communities Actively Living Independent and Free v. City of Los Angeles

In 2009, Communities Actively Living Independent and Free (CALIF), a disability rights organization, and several disabled individuals sued the City of Los Angeles alleging that it had violated federal and state laws that protect disabled persons. For example, the Los Angeles emergency preparedness plan did not contain processes for notifying individuals with hearing or cognitive impairments about an emergency or specify how disabled individuals would be evacuated or temporarily sheltered.

The Los Angeles Department on Disability issued recommendations in 2008 about actions the city could take to comply with federal and state disability protections relative to preparedness. With the exception of assessing ADA compliance for some city shelters, Los Angeles did not act on these...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A411614377