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October 20, 2008    DOL Home > ODEP > Publications > Emergency Preparedness for People with Disabilities


The Seminar of Exchange regarding emergency preparedness for people with disabilities was well-received by both participants and presenters. In the evaluation surveys received from participants rating the Seminar purpose and the information received, feedback indicated that participants found the presenters very knowledgeable, the content strong, and the materials practical and thought-provoking. Many respondents indicated they particularly liked finding out what other agencies are doing and sharing ideas and practices with others.

Based upon the high registration rate and the overwhelmingly positive feedback, this Seminar filled a void for many in terms of developing, implementing, and maintaining an agency emergency preparedness plan that includes people with disabilities. The sponsoring agencies, coordinators, and presenters of this event hope that the Seminar served as a catalyst to bring about greater focus and action on this important issue in the future.

A careful review of the presentations and subsequent discussion in the plenary and breakout sessions revealed four prevailing themes related to developing an emergency preparedness plan that involves people with disabilities. They are (1) communication with employees; (2) agency budget and personnel commitment; (3) flexibility; and (4) practice. The following is a summary of the prevailing themes of the Seminar and should not be viewed as an agency prescription or policy recommendation.

Communication with Employees

hands reading brailleCommunicating with all employees is paramount to developing, implementing, and maintaining an emergency preparedness plan that effectively addresses the unique needs of employees with disabilities. Communication, in this regard, actually consists of three inextricably intertwined elements: outreach to employees with disabilities; sharing disability information within the confines of civil rights and privacy protections; and using effective methods of communication.

Developing, implementing and maintaining an emergency plan that involves people with disabilities cannot succeed without input from those it is designed to benefit. Throughout the Seminar of Exchange, presenters stressed that there is no greater authority on the emergency needs of an individual with a disability than the person himself/herself. Therefore, the plan should reflect the input of employees with disabilities. In doing so, an agency guarantees that its plan is as comprehensive as possible. Additionally, communicating with employees with disabilities will, in many instances, provide them with a sense of confidence, having had an opportunity to actually contribute to the process.

Obtaining necessary input from employees with disabilities is a critical factor in developing an emergency preparedness plan. However, managers may have legitimate concerns that gathering information about specific individual needs violates civil rights protections afforded by federal laws (e.g., Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended). Thus, agency personnel should be carefully instructed on the legal aspects of gathering such information (e.g., type of information that can be gathered and the manner in which this is accomplished). Federal laws do not prevent employers from obtaining and appropriately using information necessary for a comprehensive emergency evacuation plan. Similarly, with respect to attitudes toward disability, it is essential an agency develop a culture where employees feel comfortable sharing the necessary information with appropriate individuals.

Finally, establishing effective means to impart emergency preparedness and response procedures is vital to the success of the agency plan. Communication challenges among federal employees with disabilities vary widely. Therefore, varied, multiple, and redundant means of emergency notification and communication are necessary.

Agency Budget and Personnel Commitment

An effective emergency preparedness plan requires support and commitment from senior-level management within an agency. Seminar presenters and participants alike commented that an agency preparedness plan will only be as good as the financial and personnel resources supporting it. The methods of securing and demonstrating managerial commitment to including people with disabilities in emergency planning vary from agency to agency. At some agencies, this has been accomplished through direct communications from executive-level officials, such as the agency Secretary. Since the protocols and forms of communications differ from agency to agency, personnel tasked with creating emergency preparedness plans need to think creatively about obtaining and communicating the vital managerial buy-in.


Even the best laid plans for an emergency situation can fall prey to unforeseen circumstances. In order to minimize the chaos and disorder stemming from an emergency situation, an agency emergency preparedness plan must be as flexible as possible. Although an agency may believe it has identified and accommodated all employees with disabilities, there is a very real possibility that not everyone who needs assistance in emergencies has self-identified. Indeed, there may also be instances where an emergency situation exacerbates existing impairments or creates new impairments, affecting an individual’s ability to evacuate. Recognizing that situations like these can arise, effective planning practice includes building flexibility into an agency emergency preparedness plan.

For example, during the Seminar, there was significant discussion about the effectiveness of the buddy system. As defined earlier, a traditional ‘buddy system’ entails assigning an able-bodied person to a person with a disability for the purpose of assisting the employee with a disability during an emergency. However, reliance on a single buddy can put the employee at risk, in the event the buddy is not present, able, or willing to assist during an emergency. Therefore, ‘flexibility’ in an emergency preparedness plan is vital. This may mean augmenting the traditional buddy system with additional supports for the employee; in other words having multiple individuals prepared to assist in an emergency. With this approach, everyone, including the person with a disability, would be trained in issues that may arise during an emergency.


During the Seminar, presenters and experienced managers continually emphasized the importance of rigorously practicing the emergency plan on a regular basis with all employees. Practicing serves several purposes. First, it allows employees with and without disabilities to become familiar with the agency plan. This includes learning, knowing, and remembering where to go, what to do, and who to contact in an emergency. Secondly, it provides agency emergency preparedness planners with an opportunity to survey and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the plan; therefore, providing a base plan on which to improve or from which to replicate. Finally, regularly-timed drills and/or practice sessions keep the issue of being prepared on the minds of all involved, from the agency Secretary to the agency custodial staff.

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