By Curry Mayer

It is interesting that we, in emergency management, talk at length about helping as many people as possible in all of our programs and in all of the phases of emergency management, however, I don’t believe we have spent enough time thinking about how we reach those who are differently abled. The term that is most inclusive of those with additional needs, is people with “Access and Functional Needs”, which goes beyond what the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires. Access is about mobility, which includes the elderly and small children, and those who use mobility devices; wheelchair, walker, cane, etc. – think anyone who would need assistance accessing either help (for evacuation as an example) AND access includes the ability to find and use resources (so this also includes access to technology and those with limited English proficiency). Functional needs includes all who have challenges with functioning; cognitive, visual, physical, hearing, all functions that might be needed before, during, and after a disaster.

There are many disabilities that are invisible – cognitive challenges, or differing ways of processing information (dyslexia, ADHD, vision challenges, etc.) can be considered disabilities, or more accurately, differently abled – which requires that messaging, outreach, preparedness, recovery, be communicated in different ways.

For emergency management to be truly inclusive, we need to be thinking as broadly as possible. Race and ethnicity have been overlooked for many aspects of emergency management, as have those with Access and Functional Needs. For us to truly be inclusive we need to broaden our perspective and definition of who our audience is and then adapt our ways of reaching that audience – what exactly are the particular needs of each segment of that audience/community? It is incumbent on the emergency management profession and its community to reach out to organizations and to do research to learn what all people will find most useful.

One way of adapting messaging and training materials is to use Universal Design principles. Here is a link: Universal Design UW and here: Centre of Excellence Universal Design. Training materials using Universal Design principles would have low contrast colors, larger fonts, and a format that facilitates technology devices translating to another language or into spoken word. Setting up a room for training using Universal Design would include things like large aisles between tables and chairs (for those with mobility devices, such as wheelchairs) lighting that works for those with vision challenges, and the use of a
microphone, so that everyone can hear what’s being presented.

In our quest to reach the whole of community, emergency managers must broaden how they think about who is in the community and what challenges there are for those with Access and Functional Needs. By doing this, we not only help MORE people, we also do a better job of empowering people with information, awareness, and ways in which they can help themselves. This helps everyone!

Resources and assistance before, during, and after a disaster aren’t any good if people can’t find or access them!