NCD Statement for the Record House Subcomitte on Emergency Preparedness, Response, & Recovery

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Statement for the Record

U.S. House of Representatives

Emergency Preparedness, Response, & Recovery Subcommittee
“20 Years After 9/11: Examining Emergency Communications” Hearing

October 7, 2021

Chairwoman Demings and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to submit this Statement for the Record. On behalf of the National Council on Disability (NCD), we thank the subcommittee for holding this important hearing to examine the importance of effective emergency communications. As a federal voice for the over 61 million people with disabilities, NCD is congressionally mandated to advise the President, Congress, and other policymakers on disability policies and practices that enhance equal opportunity for people with disabilities to achieve economic self-sufficiency, independent living, and inclusion and integration into all aspects of society.

NCD has completed numerous comprehensive reports[1] regarding emergency management and effective communications. NCD’s 2014 report Effective Communications for People with Disabilities Before, During, and After Emergencies,[2] examined communication before, during, and after emergencies for people with disabilities. The report identified facilitators and barriers to providing effective emergency-related communications; reviewed the enforcement of current disability laws and regulations as they pertain to effective communication before, during, and after emergencies; documented successful practices and surveyed the emergency management community to identify challenges and best practices for effective communications for people with disabilities. The research and anecdotal evidence for the report unequivocally demonstrated that people with disabilities must be an integral part of emergency communication activities before, during, and after an emergency or disaster, small or large, natural or manmade.

NCD’s forthcoming progress report,[3] The Impact of COVID-19 on People with Disabilities will document barriers to effective communications in healthcare, services in congregate care settings, education and government emergency services that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, people with disabilities already faced communication barriers across these systems, but the report will demonstrate the failure of effective communications across these systems as the country responded to, and  in recovery efforts from, the pandemic and that the failure of those communications led to a disproportionate impact of the pandemic upon people with disabilities. Disparities in effective communication deepened with the pandemic. While the entire country feared contracting COVID-19, millions of people with disabilities experienced the additional anxiety of being unable to learn about current guidance, and/or communicate concerns or decisions regarding their medical circumstances in light of the lockdowns and ad hoc hospital policies. Widespread mask use and social distancing protocol, as well as increased reliance on virtual forums of communication, among other pandemic-era policies, created new challenges for people with hearing, vision, speech, and/or intellectual or developmental disabilities to interact with their communities and equally access healthcare, education, and employment. These communication barriers also hindered the dissemination of public health information critical to slowing the spread of COVID-19 and exacerbated the difficulties that people with disabilities already faced in accessing essential services.

Effective, accessible emergency communications can make the difference between life and death. For emergency communications to be effective, they must be timely, accurate, and clear.[4] When alerts and warnings are timely and accurate, and the proper preparedness information is provided, the first steps have been taken in managing the emergency effectively and mitigating the effects of the emergency. To be timely, accurate and clear, they must be accessible to all people, particularly those with access and functional needs, including people with sensory disabilities (deaf, hard of hearing, blind, low vision, deaf-blind, and speech disabilities), people with mobility, intellectual, developmental, and those with psychiatric disabilities. Inaccessible emergency communications diminish the effectiveness of all emergency communications. It is critical that emergency managers at the local, state, tribal, and federal levels remember that people with access and functional needs comprise over half the population, meaning that accessible emergency communications go far beyond reaching a small portion of the public.[5]

Frustratingly, history has repeatedly shown that people with disabilities and others with access and functional needs in emergencies are frequently overlooked or have their needs minimized, despite the urgency that surrounds the need to account for people with disabilities in all phases of emergency management, including mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. A stark example of this during the pandemic was the lack of sign language interpreters at the regular White House COVID-19 briefings on the evolving guidance regarding the pandemic safety protocols, rendering Deaf Americans shut out of the critical information entirely.[6]

The need for effective accessible communications for people with disabilities was also brought home by a news account in the case of a survivor of Hurricane Sandy:

“When police with megaphones rolled through Carole Lazorisak’s Oakwood Beach neighborhood in the hours before the hurricane thrust ashore, she did

not hear their announcement about evacuation help. In the days after the surge ripped her Tarlton Street home off its foundation, filled it with water to a depth

of 5 feet and tossed her shed nearly a block away, she joined the thousands of other dazed victims at Miller Field in New Dorp, seeking some answers and a measure of comfort. But for Ms. Lazorisak, who has been deaf since birth, walking through the bustling relief center was like being in a movie on silent. There were no signs providing information for the information for the deaf or directing people to translation services. She left feeling more isolated than ever.[7]

NCD has identified through its emergency management work numerous instances of inaccessible emergency communications before, during, and after emergencies. Examples of barriers to effective communication include these:

  • Televised emergency announcements by officials that do not include American Sign Language interpreters
  • Inaccessible emergency notification systems
  • Inaccessible evacuation maps
  • Websites with emergency information that is not accessible to screen readers used by people who are blind or have low vision
  • Shelters at which no one is able to communicate with people who are deaf or hard of hearing
  • Emergency communication in language that is inaccessible to people with intellectual or developmental disabilities and people with limited English proficiency
  • 911 systems that do not allow people with disabilities to contact them via text based communication

Accessible emergency communications are not a suggestion, they are a legal requirement. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), as amended; the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA); the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act (PKEMRA); the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Stafford Act), as amended; the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended; the Communications Act of 1973, as amended; Executive Orders 13407 and 13347; and regulations from the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) all require accessible communications for people with disabilities before, during, and after an emergency. Furthermore, legal requirements for accessible emergency communications benefit everyone. For example, people who are in a different room at the time of an emergency broadcast will be able to hear alerts and warnings if they are spoken, while people who have lowered the volume on their televisions will benefit from large captions illuminating the details of the emergency message.

Emergency managers need to ensure that emergency communications are accessible before, during, and after an emergency. Effective emergency communications can only exist with good planning and must be initiated long before an emergency begins to prepare both emergency personnel and members of the community for potential emergencies and also aid in reducing the impact of an emergency. A vital part of effective planning is an understanding of the diverse populations that make up the community, including their strengths and their weaknesses. In NCD’s 2014 report, local emergency managers cited limited funding and staff as the two primary barriers to providing effective emergency communications. Another primary barrier cited was the lack of involvement in emergency management by people with disabilities and others with access and functional needs. Barriers to effective communication like those identified above, can be removed with comprehensive planning at all levels.

Another critical component of effective planning is ensuring trust in policymakers and other decisionmakers. Unfortunately, in regards to emergency communications, a sense of trust in authorities has been historically lacking among people with disabilities, due to the “history of circumventing the disability community in planning for disasters.”[8] If communication is ongoing between emergency personnel and people with disabilities and others with access and functional needs before an emergency, this could enhance the level of trust that people with disabilities have in authorities and improve the response. To achieve effective emergency communications and enhance trust, one of NCD’s key recommendations in the 2014 report is that people with disabilities and others with access and functional needs be included in the planning process at all levels as well as in helping to formulate communication strategies.[9] If people with disabilities and others with access and functional needs are included as stakeholders in the planning process, they will likely have a higher level of trust in emergency officials and help ensure that accessibility is considered in emergency planning. This will ensure that the needs of people with disabilities and others with access and functional needs are properly considered and that solutions are implemented.

NCD’s other significant recommendations in our 2014 report based on the findings from the research included that:

  • Emergency managers should ensure that the communications needs of people with disabilities and others with access and functional needs are integrated into all parts of emergency planning at the local, state, tribal, and federal levels.
  • Emergency managers should increase outreach efforts to the disability community.
     
  • The Civil Rights Division of the Department of the Department of Justice (DOJ), in collaboration with other agencies as appropriate, should increase monitoring and enforcement of federal laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act, which require that emergency communications be fully accessible to people with disabilities, and funding should be appropriated accordingly.
     
  • The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should increase its monitoring and enforcement of federal laws and regulations that require that emergency communications be fully accessible to people with disabilities, and funding should be appropriated accordingly.
     
  • The FCC and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) should continue to work toward ensuring that alerts and warnings are fully accessible to people with disabilities.

Shamefully, little progress has been made since these recommendations were made seven years ago.

Thank you for the opportunity to provide statement for the record. Effective communication is critical and can save lives during times of emergency. NCD is committed to ensuring effective accessible communications for all people with disabilities before, during, and after emergencies, and promoting inclusive emergency management practices on the local, state, tribal, and federal levels.

The documented experiences of people with disabilities, proven strategies, and recommended practices in NCD’s various reports can serve as a guide to Congress, the Federal Emergency Management Administration and other applicable federal agencies to ensure inclusive emergency management practices, including complete communication access for all people with disabilities before, during, and after emergencies. If NCD can act as a resource to the Committee to this end as you contemplate policy solutions to ongoing problems, inclusive of those cited above, please do not hesitate to contact Kimie Eacobacci, Legislative Affairs Specialist, at keacobacci@ncd.gov. Thank you.

Most Respectfully,

Andrés J. Gallegos
Chairman

 




[1] National Council on Disability, Preserving Our Freedom: Ending the Institutionalization of People with Disabilities During Disasters (Washington, DC: National Council on Disability, 2019); National Council on Disability, National Disability Policy: A Progress Report (issued annually) (Washington, DC: National Council on Disability, 2014); National Council on Disability, Effective Communications for People with Disabilities Before, During, and After Emergencies (Washington, DC: National Council on Disability, 2014); National Council on Disability, Effective Emergency Management: Making Improvements for Communities and People with Disabilities (Washington, DC: National Council on Disability, 2009); National Council on Disability, People with Disabilities and Emergency Management (Washington, DC: National Council on Disability, 2008); National Council on Disability, Homeland Security, Emergency Preparedness, Disaster Relief and Recovery Public Consultation (Washington, DC: National Council on Disability, 2007); National Council on Disability, The Needs of People with Disabilities with Psychiatric Disabilities During and After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita: Position Paper and Recommendations (Washington, DC: National Council on Disability, 2006); National Council on Disability, The Impact of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on People with Disabilities: A Look Back and Remaining Challenges (Washington, DC: National Council on Disability, 2006); National Council on Disability, The Need for Federal Legislation and Regulation Prohibiting Telecommunications and Information Services Discrimination (Washington, DC: National Council on Disability, 2006); National Council on Disability, Saving Lives: Including People with Disabilities in Emergency Planning (Washington, DC: National Council on Disability, 2005). All reports available at https://ncd.gov/

[2] National Council on Disability, Effective Communications for People with Disabilities Before, During, and After Emergencies (Washington, DC: National Council on Disability, 2014), available at https://ncd.gov/publications/2014/05272014

[3] Report is set for publication October 29, 2021.

[4] Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). 2010b. “Effective Communication: Independent Study 242.a.” Washington, D.C. 1–8.7.

[5] National Council on Disability, Effective Communications for People with Disabilities Before, During, and After Emergencies (Washington, DC: National Council on Disability, 2014), available at https://ncd.gov/publications/2014/05272014

[6] National Council on Disability to Stephanie Grisham, March 18, 2020. NCD Letter to White House Regarding Taskforce Interpreters, available at https://ncd.gov/publications/2020/ncd-letter-white-house-regarding-taskforce-interpreters.

[7] Deborah Young, “Deaf Staten Island Victim of Hurricane Sandy Says Pleas Go Unheeded,” Staten Island Advance, December 8, 2012, https://www.silive.com/eastshore/2012/12/deaf_staten_island_victim_of_h.html

[8] National Council on Disability, Effective Emergency Management: Making Improvements for Communities and People with Disabilities (Washington, DC: National Council on Disability, 2009), p. 93, available at https://ncd.gov/publications/2009/Aug122009

[9] National Council on Disability, Saving Lives: Including People with Disabilities in Emergency Planning (Washington, DC: National Council on Disability, 2005), available at https://ncd.gov/publications/2005/saving-lives-including-people-disabilities-emergency-planning; Beckjord, E. B., Stern, S., Meredith, L. S., Shugarman, L. R., Chandra, A., Tanielian, T., Taylor, S. L., Parker, A. M. 2008. “Enhancing Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Recovery Management for Vulnerable Populations.” Working Paper. RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA: 2–31.