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Many of you may remember us marking the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act this past July in a wonderful and moving event at the White House. On that day, we reflected on how far this historic law brought us in living up to our civil rights promises for all Americans – and how far we still have to go to make sure that every person in this country – regardless of their race, background, income and whether or not they have a disability – has equal access to all of the opportunities our great nation has to offer.
As the President put it better than anyone: “To move America forward. That’s what we did with the ADA. That is what we do today. And that’s what we’re going to do tomorrow -- together.” And today marked another historic day in this effort as FEMA and the National Disability Rights Network came together, along with other leaders and advocates from across the disability community, to sign a memorandum of agreement – an agreement that solidifies a partnership in working together to make sure we are planning for and meeting the needs of people with disabilities before, during, and after disasters strike.
It sounds like common sense, but the unfortunate truth is that for years the needs of people with disabilities were more of an afterthought during disasters. Not enough was done to make sure that shelters planned for the access and functional needs of individuals who might require wheelchairs to be replaced or beds at a certain height if it was necessary to evacuate during a disaster. Residents who were blind or deaf, and those with intellectual disabilities didn’t have access to critical information about evacuation routes or other warnings. And in some cases, accessible transportation for people with disabilities just wasn’t factored into planning at all. This was largely due to a simple lack of coordination and upfront planning for the whole of community.
Under the leadership of President Obama and Administrator Fugate, we are changing all of this. We have taken several concrete steps already. And as Administrator Fugate said at today’s MOA signing – we must plan for the whole of community up front, with FEMA as just one part of the emergency management team. Today’s agreement helps strengthen the relationship that Administrator Fugate and his team have already developed with the National Disability Rights Network and other key stakeholders. It will help FEMA do two critical things:
President Obama put it best during his remarks seven months ago. Equal access and equal opportunities are common principles, no matter who you are. And they need to apply to every aspect of our lives, whether at school, at work, in our homes, or when an emergency happens. Today was another important step forward in that journey. And tomorrow, we begin again.
Heidi Avery is Deputy Assistant to the President for Homeland Security on the National Security Staff.