State/local governments work to protect the public from the negative impacts of emergencies and disasters, including storms and other weather events. This work—known as “emergency management”—includes preparing for, responding to, and recovering from emergencies and disasters.
Emergency management is wide-ranging. Some examples of these programs, which are addressed below, include:
- emergency alerts;
- community evacuation and transportation; and
- emergency shelter programs.
State/local governments must ensure their emergency management programs follow the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. This page discusses how state/local governments can ensure their programs are accessible for persons with disabilities.
Alerting the public to an emergency is critical. Many emergency warning systems are not accessible for people with disabilities. For example, people who are deaf or hard of hearing cannot hear radio, television, or sirens. Those who are blind or have low vision cannot see visual cues, such as flashing lights.
State/local governments should have warning systems to ensure all persons can access information about emergencies. To reach more people with disabilities, state/local governments should consider using:
- Both visual and audible alerts.
- Several electronic alert methods like telephone calls, auto-dialed TTY (teletypewriter) messages, text messaging, and e-mails.
- Qualified sign language interpreters and open captioning for announcements on television and websites.
Community Evacuation and Transportation
During an emergency, it is critical to transport and evacuate people. But these tasks may be disrupted due to overcrowding and blocked streets and sidewalks.
As a result, individuals with disabilities can face challenges in evacuating, depending on the nature of the emergency.
What types of challenges?
- People with a mobility disability may need assistance leaving a building without a working elevator.
- Individuals who are blind or who have low vision may not be able to use traditional orientation and navigation methods alone.
- An individual who is deaf may be trapped somewhere and unable to seek help because the only available communication device relies on voice.
State/local governments can take steps to make transportation more accessible such as:
- Working with people with disabilities and organizations to prepare for transportation needs. For example, some individuals have service animals or use oxygen tanks.
- Planning to use accessible transportation for people with disabilities. For example, use vehicles like school buses or transit buses with wheelchair lifts to transport people who use wheelchairs or scooters.
- Creating voluntary, confidential registries of persons with disabilities to plan for evacuating persons with different disabilities. For example, some persons can reach mass evacuation pick-up locations independently, while others may need assistance.
Emergency Shelter Programs
Some state/local governments provide individuals temporary shelter during an emergency. The ADA generally requires shelters to offer people with disabilities equal access to the benefits of these programs—like safety, food, and medical care—as those without disabilities.
State/local governments are also required to modify their policies and practices, when reasonable, to accommodate persons with disabilities. For example, an emergency shelter may restrict kitchen access to preserve food supplies. In that case, the shelter may need to modify its policy so that a person can use the kitchen.
State/local governments only need to make modifications that are reasonable. A state/local government does need to make a modification if it results in a fundamental alteration.
What is a fundamental alteration?
A fundamental alteration is something that would change the essential nature of the entity’s programs or services. Learn more about fundamental alterations in the State and Local Government Primer.
Physical Accessibility at Shelters
- Make sure shelter staff maintain accessible routes and minimize protruding objects. For example, beds must be placed in locations that avoid blocking accessible routes.
- Ensure staff and volunteers can help people who are blind or have low vision find shelter areas.
- Survey physical spaces for barriers and ensure they comply with the ADA Standards to ensure physical accessibility at shelters. These areas include:
- exterior route from the parking to the entrance;
- sleeping area;
- dining areas;
- toilet facilities;
- bathing facilities;
- recreational areas; and
- emergency exit.
Prepare Mass Shelter Environment
There are generally two types of shelters: “mass care” shelters for the general population and other shelters like “medical” shelters. Medical shelters provide a higher level of medical care for people who are medically fragile (i.e., the level of care often by trained medical staff at a nursing home or hospital).
Most people with disabilities do not require the care provided at medical shelters. State/local governments should plan and prepare to house people with disabilities in mass shelters, including those who need some medical care, medication, equipment, and supportive services. To do this, state/local governments can take several steps, like:
- Training staff and volunteers to help persons with disabilities with daily living activities like transferring someone to and from a wheelchair.
- Ensuring there are back-up generators and a way to keep medications cold.
- Providing stress-relief zones for people whose disabilities are aggravated by stress.
- Modifying “no pets” policies to allow people with disabilities to stay in shelters with their service animals. Also, provide food, water, and waste disposal supplies for service animals. Read Service Animals for more information on ADA requirements for service animals.
- In shelters where people generally use sleeping mats on the floor, making sure there are cots and beds for persons with disabilities unable to use mats.
The ADA requires state/local governments to provide services to people in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs. See Community Integration for more information.
Good communication between staff, volunteers, and residents at an emergency shelter is critical. State/local governments must ensure they communicate effectively with people who have disabilities like blindness or hearing loss. State/local governments should consider:
- Including accessible versions of documents to shelter residents to ensure persons who are blind or have low vision can access them. Examples include large print, Braille, or audio recordings.
- Ensuring audible information can be accessed by those who are deaf or hard of hearing. In emergency shelters, a lot of information is given orally. Thus, for some communications, it may be appropriate to use sign language interpreters (in- person or remote) or written information to reach those who are deaf or hard of hearing.
- Providing TTYs, where needed, for people who are deaf or hard of hearing or have speech difficulties.
- Training staff and volunteers to read printed information, upon request, to persons who are blind or have low vision.
More information about communicating effectively with people with disabilities can be found on this topics page.
Learn More About Emergency Planning
Emergency Management under Title II of the ADA (PDF)
Addendum 1: Title II Checklist (Emergency Management) (PDF)
Addendum 2: The ADA and Emergency Shelters: Access for All in Emergencies and Disasters (PDF)
Addendum 3: ADA Checklist for Emergency Shelters (PDF)
Introduction to Appendices 1 and 2 PDF
An ADA Guide for Local Governments: Making Community Emergency Preparedness and Response Programs Accessible to People with Disabilities (PDF)
Access for 9-1-1 and Telephone Emergency Services (PDF) En Español
NOTE: Portions of the guidance materials linked above may not fully reflect the current ADA regulations and the most recent ADA Standards for Accessible Design