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


A. Communicating with Employees

The ability to communicate effectively with all employees is vital to the development, implementation, and maintenance of any emergency preparedness plan. Communication or lack thereof can impact the establishment of emergency plans, maintenance of an effective plan, and response to drills and/or an actual emergency. In short, it directly impacts an individual’s ability to remain safe in an emergency, and can mean the difference between life and death.

The Communicating with Employees forum gave participants the opportunity to learn about communication strategies that can be used to ensure employees with disabilities are part of the emergency preparedness process. Topics that were addressed included specific considerations for communicating with employees who are deaf or hard of hearing, identifying employees requiring assistance, and obtaining necessary information from employees in a manner consistent with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended.

According to Dr. Carl Cameron, founder of The Disability Preparedness Center, several factors can impact communication in the emergency preparedness process. First and foremost, people with disabilities are not included in the planning process. Little, if any, communication exists between planners and the disability community. This may be due in part to a lack of training or understanding regarding the needs of people with disabilities. Because of the varying communication, support, and health considerations among people with disabilities, emergency planning and response personnel may not know how or where to begin in considering this segment of the workforce. Cameron offered these suggestions to emergency management personnel and federal managers:

  • Involve people with disabilities in the planning process: Take into account both the meeting space and materials. Make sure they are accessible to personnel with disabilities.
  • Include disability specific procedures: This may entail reviewing the emergency plan, securing input from individuals with disabilities as to what accommodations are necessary, and developing procedures and practicing them.
  • Train response personnel: It is important to include information for assisting individuals with disabilities in emergency preparedness training, but be prepared for disagreement—particularly within the disability community. Involve individuals with disabilities as trainers.
  • Provide pro-active information: Make sure information is readily accessible in a variety of formats (e.g., in a Word document, via the Web). Secure and share materials regarding emergency preparedness for people with disabilities with emergency management personnel and employees.
  • Create a special needs list
Sharon Rennert looked on while Cheryl Heppner, Executive Director of The Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons, speaks

Sharon Rennert, EEOC Attorney, looked on while Cheryl Heppner, Executive Director for the Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing, described communication strategies.

Cheryl Heppner, Executive Director of The Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons, addressed some the unique considerations for communicating with employees who are deaf or hard of hearing. Plans need to include ways to relay the same level of detailed information to all staff at all times. This involves determining such considerations as how information will be conveyed to deaf or hard of hearing employees when they are away from their desks or office. As Heppner noted, an emergency plan is useless unless an individual understands the type of emergency or shelter-in-place. She provided the following example:

A deaf individual had no knowledge of what had happened at the Twin Towers or the Pentagon. A co-worker hand-signed the word, ‘war’ and told him to get out. When he was outside the building, he didn’t see any of his co-workers, so he went back into the office. One co-worker, who was still there, again spelled out in sign alphabet the word ‘war’ and told him to go home. He had no detailed information on what was going on.

This experience was not unique. Reports from organizations “indicated that widespread difficulties were experienced across the nation” (Heppner, 2003, p. 2). A national follow-up survey in Spring 2003 asked what plans or procedures had been implemented. “This second survey found that only a few isolated attempts had been made across the U.S. and that there was little or no sharing of information or coordination of efforts” (Heppner, 2003, p. 2) .

Given these findings, she sees five key points when communicating with employees who are deaf or hard of hearing:

  • Implement a variety of systems to communicate, not just one;
  • Develop strategies for communicating with people who are away from their desk;
  • Involve people who are deaf or hard of hearing in the planning process;
  • Ensure that the emergency-planning manual has information specific to people who are deaf or hard of hearing; and
  • Advocate for a variety of communication methods.

However, Cameron also pointed out that persons with disabilities must take responsibility for their own well-being and should play an active (not passive) role in the process. Clarifying roles and responsibilities of both the emergency management staff and building occupants, having a plan of action, and practicing the plan to make sure it is effective are essential elements to emergency planning. The worst-case scenario must be considered when making plans.

Additional elements include the psychological and human factors that impact plans. People with cognitive disabilities and/or some psychiatric issues may have difficulty understanding what is happening or dealing with the need to alter routines in an emergency situation. Others may require assistance, such as someone to help during an evacuation or a shelter-in-place. Talking directly to individual employees about their needs is imperative. Just as one emergency plan does not fit every agency, one employee with a disability does not represent all employees with disabilities in an agency.

Agencies can talk to employees about their needs and involve people with disabilities in the planning process consistent with the requirements of the Rehabilitation Act. Sharon Rennert, Senior Attorney Advisor with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), explained there are two main issues related to employee information and emergency planning: 1) obtaining information from employees and 2) sharing the information with others.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, does not bar agencies or federal contractors from gathering pertinent information (e.g., the type(s) of emergency assistance an individual needs and how it relates to the individual’s disability), or disseminating it to necessary personnel; nevertheless, there are some guidelines as to how and when the information can be obtained, and the exact nature and with whom the data can be shared. Employers are permitted to get employee medical information for use in emergency planning. It is important to reassure employees of confidentiality: that the information will be shared only with those responsible for safety and emergency evacuation. Rennert stressed the value of having a dialogue with employees, and clearly sharing the reason for collecting information.

There are three key opportunities to obtain information that may be critical for emergency purposes:

  1. After the job offer is made but before an individual begins work, the agency may ask the person to complete a questionnaire regarding emergency evacuation needs.
  2. An agency may periodically survey the entire workforce.
  3. If the manager knows that an individual has a disability, he or she can ask whether the individual might need assistance during an emergency. For example, consider a shelter-in-place: does an employee have dietary or medical needs? Also, keep in mind that there may not be an interpreter in the shelter. Determine what accommodations are needed to communicate with a person who is deaf.

With regard to sharing the information with others, here are several important points to keep in mind:

  1. Designate an individual at your agency who knows and clearly understands these needs. Ensure that someone is responsible for providing the necessary assistance.
  2. Share only necessary and appropriate information regarding emergency needs—not irrelevant disability-related information —with safety and emergency evacuation personnel.

Following the presentations, the discussion and questions centered around the need for employees to take an active role in preparedness efforts and the steps being taken to improve plans and technology access in the Federal Government.

Although plans may exist, there is often an element of the unknown during an emergency. More importantly, emergency personnel may be unable to meet every need immediately. Employees must also take active steps to prepare on a personal level. Consideration must be given to what will happen not only during, but also following an emergency. For example, how will employees get home if public transportation is not operating? What happens if an employee requires medication during a shelter-in-place? Effective practices may include keeping extra supplies and medication at the office. Several concerns included storing such items, and whether or not additional medication would be approved and covered by doctors and insurance companies.

With regard to efforts being made by the Federal Government to ensure plans are inclusive, it was noted that no federal agency is tasked with this responsibility. Evaluation standards for such plans would be difficult given the differences in size, structure, and location among agencies. Nevertheless, agencies may be working individually to strengthen emergency preparedness plans. For example, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has an initiative to improve access to technology.

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