By Jim Mullen

It is frustrating when the obvious is missed. The challenges a disabled citizen encounters merely trying to access entry into an office, navigating stairs and hallways are always in plain sight.

Those few individuals over the course of my career with whom I worked that experienced those difficulties always seemed cheerful, resilient, and capable of overcoming obstacles in their path. They seemed to be coping, rarely seeking assistance or support. So, no problem?

As an emergency management director in Seattle and the State of Washington, ADA issues were seldom raised. Government facilities were regulated by agencies that kept us within the spirit of the law. Any questions were quickly resolved, internally, in favor of the ADA requirements. While I was President of the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA, 2011-12) a national issue arose that occupied my attention. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) had prevailed in a lawsuit in California when government defendants acknowledged that they had no intention of accounting for disabled access in their planning for mass shelters.

The resulting judgment sent shockwaves through the emergency management profession: DOJ’s interpretation held that ANY shelter established – even in haste – after a disaster must be ADA compliant. Any government official (or website) directing persons to a shelter had to certify the shelter as ADA compliant or face significant liability. In tense, combative teleconferences with DOJ, NEMA argued that city governments and private entities (churches ,etc.) often establish shelters that are urgently needed in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Government websites often identify private shelter locations as a public service. To DOJ, if those shelters were non-compliant the state would be liable for penalties for promoting “anti ADA” facilities!

DOJ erroneously assumed that governments maintained instantly available multiple mass shelter sites. We countered that government-sponsored mass shelter sites would be ADA compliant., citing two examples in Washington state: shelters hastily established post Katrina (2005) and long-term intensive planning for a potential Howard Hanson Dam failure (2008-09.

DOJ ultimately concurred that “best efforts” in such cases where private , non – government facilities were concerned were a sufficient “standard of care”, but we learned something from them in that exchange, too. We resolved to include disability advocates in future shelter planning, securing their agreement to be a resource to test our best intentions against their reality.

Sometimes, we fail to see what is right in front of us.