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Improving Disaster Preparedness: Strategies from California's Disability Services System

By Carol Risley

There is no single best approach to addressing the needs of people with disabilities in preparing for, responding to, and recovering from a disaster. There is much to do because of the historic lack of attention – so much that the task often appears overwhelming, leading to lack of any action at all. And the larger the population, the more daunting the task. Nonetheless, it is not a matter of if a disaster will occur, but when. Thus, it’s not a question of what to do, but rather the need is to begin to do something to help people prepare themselves, and to help existing emergency response systems to modify themselves to meet the needs of people with disabilities in our communities and states.

California’s Department of Developmental Services provides supports and services to 212,000 people with developmental disabilities, all of whom (but for 2,800) live and receive services and supports in a wide range of community settings. Each person has a service coordinator provided through a network of non-profit regional centers, along with direct service providers to support them. While some of the services and support settings are licensed facilities, at least 22,000 people receive supported or independent living services, thus they may not be with other people 24 hours a day. For those individuals there is an urgent need to become personally prepared for an emergency and able to either support them- selves in a shelter-in-place situation or to transport to a shelter. For those living in licensed facilities, there is a need for those facilities to ensure the preparedness of those they serve and their staff.

In response to this range of needs, California is pursing several strategies:

On the local level, many consumer organizations, regional centers, and providers are engaged in a variety of activities addressing the eventual emergency/disaster that will impact their lives. Regional centers, in cooperation with local first responders, are sponsoring emergency preparedness meetings for consumers and providers, thus bringing the emergency response systems into conversation with people with disabilities. As available and accessible transportation is a key to evacuation in any disaster, some cities are conducting planning meetings with people with disabilities to better understand their needs and identify available transit resources. These conversations have enlightened both sides as to what might be expected from traditional transit systems and promoted the development of creative strategies. Use of transit system data to identify riders is one potential way to address the concept of registries for people with disabilities without having to develop new, costly and controversial systems. Some providers, as part of their service design, are discussing emergency preparedness and assisting consumers to better understand the issues and how to prepare.

Areas in which further widespread work is needed include the following:

This is by no means a comprehensive report on all the activities being pursued at many levels to enhance the readiness, survivability, and recovery for people with disabilities when the next emergency hits California. It is, however, an indication that the issue has become a priority, and with continued consumer leadership and support from the service system will become part of our way of life, not just remembered after each event occurs.

Carol Risley is Chief of the Department of Developmental Services, Office of Human Rights and Advocacy Services, Sacramento, California. She may be reached at 916/654-1888 or


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Retrieved from the Web site of the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota ( Citation: Moseley, C., Salmi, P., Johnstone, C. & Gaylord, V. (Eds.). (Spring/Summer 2007). Impact: Feature Issue on Disaster Preparedness and People with Disabilities, 20(1). [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration].

The PDF version of this Impact, with photos and graphics, is also online at

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