Commemorating the 32nd ADA Anniversary

A red white and blue graphic says: ADA 32, 1990-2022. Commemorate. Uphold. Enforce. In the lower right corner is the yellow sun logo for The Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies.The Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies (The Partnership) commemorates the 32nd Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). We intentionally use the word “commemorate” rather than “celebrate” because, although the lives of vast numbers of disabled people have been improved in large and small ways, the ADA has not delivered on its commitment to equity for disabled people.

The Partnership’s barometer of ADA compliance is disabled people’s experience during disasters and emergencies.

While compliance with the ADA during disasters and emergencies improved incrementally following Hurricane Katrina through the passage of the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act (PKEMRA), which created the FEMA Office of Disability and Coordination (ODIC), the ADA has never been enforced. Since 2017, the progress that was made within FEMA prior has receded noticeably.

People with disabilities, especially multiply marginalized disabled people, are left behind in disasters. The lack of equal access to disaster-related programs and services, which is guaranteed under the ADA, leads to disabled people being two to four times more likely to die or be injured during disasters. 

While lack of funding for services like sign language interpreters is never an excuse for not adhering to the law, much of the disregard for disabled people’s rights has zero cost attached. For example, service animals are denied entry to shelters during disasters. This violates the ADA; separating the disabled person from their service animal endangers the person and the service animal’s capacity to perform. If disabled people were valued it would be understood after 32 years that service animals are required to be admitted to shelters under the ADA. 

“Special needs shelters,” which are segregated shelters for disabled people, fly in the face of the Olmstead Supreme Court decision that requires disabled people get services in the most integrated setting to meet their needs. In special needs shelters, disabled people are separated from family, usually do not get additional services, and are at higher risk of losing their freedom by being institutionalized.

Arguably, for every disabled person who has gained freedom to rights created by the ADA, another has languished in congregate settings, nursing institutions, psychiatric facilities, group homes, detention centers and carceral facilities.

Although a few have escaped institutions under the Olmstead integration mandate, most have not.

Disabled people are at higher risk of institutionalization during disasters, and disabled Black, Brown, Indigenous and other People of Color are disproportionately institutionalized.

The COVID-19 public health emergency has underscored what the disability rights community has known for decades. Institutionalization is the greatest deprivation of liberty to children, adults, and older adults with disabilities where we are sent to wither away and die.

The ADA is a civil rights mandate and disaster survivors should not feel lucky when there is compliance. Compliance should be a given, not a matter of good fortune. Laws are not complied with because they are enacted. They are complied with when they are enforced. We are now two years into the fourth decade of the ADA. It is time that the federal government truly commits to equity for people with disabilities by funding and demanding enforcement of the ADA.

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