We’d like our workplaces to be safe, but as recent headlines attest, job sites are not immune from natural or manmade disasters. Since Sept. 11, 2001, when thousands of employees – those with disabilities and those with none, were trapped in the World Trade Center Towers, many employers, under federal government pressure, developed emergency procedures. But are employees with disabilities part of those procedures?
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “too often the needs of people with disabilities are not considered in emergency planning, despite the fact that the need for such planning has received an increased focus due to recent disasters, both natural and man-made.”
The Society of Human Resource Management says companies are not required to have emergency plans under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but if an emergency preparedness plan is in place, it must include employees with disabilities. And even if a company doesn’t have an emergency plan, it may have a requirement to address emergency evacuation for employees with disabilities as a reasonable accommodation.”
The issue gets more complicated when, as the National Council on Disabilities points out, the term disability “applies to people with heart disease, emotional or psychiatric conditions, arthritis, significant allergies, asthma, multiple chemical sensitivities, respiratory conditions, and some visual, hearing, and cognitive disabilities.” These employees’ needs likely differ from the worker who is blind and needs to be evacuated with a guide dog, or the employee who uses a wheelchair who knows that the elevators have been shut down.
News organizations can help inform the public and call businesses to account by checking to see what local companies have done – or not done – to address the needs of employees with disabilities in their emergency planning. It’s a critical issue.
Ever since Hurricane Katrina (2005) and Hurricane (2012), it has been clear that people with disabilities often are overlooked when it comes to emergency planning.
For example, one year after Sandy, a federal judge ruled that the shortcomings of New York City’s emergency plan left almost 900,000 residents in danger and violatedthe Americans with Disabilities Act, according to reporting by National Public Radio. The ruling was expected to have national implications. But did it?
In 2019, it’s still not clear whether cities, counties and states are better prepared to evacuate and protect citizens with disabilities during not just hurricanes but also fires, tornadoes, earthquakes, blizzards and floods. When Hurricane Dorian was expected to hit the U.S. coast this summer, the United Spinal Association’s website offered helpful emergency preparedness tips, but it could not tell people with disabilitiesif their town had accessible shelters or if accessible transportation could get them to the safety of shelters. That kind of information could be the difference between life and death.
Local reporters are uniquely positioned to find out whether their communities have emergency plans that address the needs of those with disabilities – and it’s a story that is well worth telling before the next major disaster strikes.
For reporters looking for a fresh angle in the world of work, here’s a story that’s largely overlooked: The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is the highest of all minority groups. It’s particularly bad for women, whose unemployment rate is more than twice the rate of non-disabled women. More than 30 percent of people with disabilities end up working part-time, compared with 17 percent of the non-disabled population. What are the numbers in your community, and what do people with disabilities say are the barriers they face?
In late June, Time Magazine reported that most Democrats running for the White House had websites that were not fully accessible by voters who are blind or sight impaired. For many, the sites are impossible to navigate, limiting these voters’ ability to get information on candidates. Checking the websites of local candidates could be equally revealing. Local or regional disability organizations may be willing to do an assessment and connect you with people who live with blindness. Does access to this kind of information influence their voting decisions? Does lack of access discourage them from voting at all? In the 2018 midterm elections, 2.1 million persons with visual impairments voted, while 2.2 million did not, according to Rutgers University.
Integrating students with special needs into the academic classroom has been well covered over the years, so now is a good time to look inside gym classes. Under federal law (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), physical education must be made available equally to children with disabilities as children without. Sometimes a class is adapted to their needs, or students, assisted by adaptive equipment, are enrolled in standard gym classes. The quality of the classes varies widely. Physical activity is 4.5 times lower for children and youth with disabilities compared to their non-disabled peers, which can lead to obesity and other health problems, according to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. And the goal of PE – to learn, practice, and master skills that allow youth to be physically active for a lifetime – is equally important for all students, the council emphasizes.