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5 Ways the Rehabilitation Act Shapes FEMA and Creates a More Equitable Emergency Response Community

Fifty years ago, the Rehabilitation Act was signed. This historic piece of legislation addressed access and equity for people with disabilities in all federally conducted and funded activities. It laid the foundation for the work that FEMA does today to create equity for our own employees and the public that we serve.

FEMA’s Office of Disability Integration and Coordination and the Office of Equal Rights are leaders in these efforts and are guided by the principles laid out in the Rehabilitation Act. 

“The Rehabilitation Act is a critical tool that FEMA uses to support our employees as well as Americans with disabilities who are affected by disasters,” said Director of the Office of Equal Rights Leslie Saucedo. “FEMA is committed to ensuring it leads the federal family in the hiring, inclusion, and retention of individuals with disabilities, as well as supporting disaster survivors with disabilities in FEMA-sponsored and FEMA-funded programs.” 

Here are five ways the Rehabilitation Act shapes the work the agency does:

1 – It ensures equitable access to federally conducted and funded programs and services for people with disabilities who have been affected by disasters.

The Rehabilitation Act created a new standard for the rights of people with disabilities in accessing all federally financed activities.  

For FEMA, this means that once the federal government applies resources to disaster response, people with disabilities must be given equitable access to all of FEMA’s services and cannot be excluded because of a disability. This includes activities such as funding emergency shelters, distributing water or transporting families to hotels. 

These requirements also apply to state, local, territorial and tribal governments and certain private nonprofits that receive FEMA disaster financial assistance. 

2 – It led to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Although the Rehabilitation Act brought critically important changes to America, it wasn’t enough. To improve on the equitable access that the Rehabilitation Act offered, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. This Act broadened accountability beyond federally funded activities. It also made it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities seeking employment and called for an increase in access to state, local and public services and facilities, transportation, and telecommunications. 

This act would become critical to FEMA and emergency planning in many ways. For example, when issuing public alerts and ensuring public safety during a disaster, the ADA required the state and local emergency management community to deliver alerts using a variety of forms of communication in order to better reach people with disabilities.

These two laws work in tandem to ensure that accessibility is considered before a disaster, so that inaccessibility itself does not become a barrier to safety and recovery when a disaster affects a region.

3 – It supports FEMA employees.

The Rehabilitation Act emphasizes the importance of an accessible workplace, promotes the hiring of individuals with disabilities and protects federal employees with disabilities from employment discrimination. 

FEMA’s Office of Equal Rights works to improve how the agency operates internally, supports employees with reasonable accommodation requests and ensures that diversity is celebrated and valued at FEMA. 

Another example of how FEMA supports its employees is by following 508 compliance, an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act that requires Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. One team at FEMA is dedicated to ensuring 508 compliance in our products by providing compliance reviews, ensuring accessibility with the applications and offering regular trainings to help employees create accessible documents.

4 – It affirmatively supports disaster survivors.

The Rehabilitation Act also ensures that we are supporting the public in equitable ways. FEMA’s mandate is to deliver these equitable outcomes through government policies, programs and activities and to do so by promoting interagency coordination. 

We try to reach all survivors with the following:

  • Accessible Disaster Recovery Centers. 
    We make Disaster Recovery Centers fully accessible by choosing buildings that have ramps, supplying information translated into local languages, providing access to American Sign Language Interpreters and more.
  • Advanced technology.
    The FEMA app uses advanced technology accessible to all. It helps communities plan for and recover from disasters better through clear, effective and accessible communication.
  • New and expanding programs.
    FEMA is reducing barriers to access experienced by underserved populations through programs that provide individual assistance to disaster survivors. For example, FEMA expanded home repair assistance for people with disaster-caused disabilities by reimbursing real property accessibility-related items (i.e., grab bars, ramps and a paved pathway), when these items are necessary to make the home safe and functional. These changes to FEMA’s Individual Assistance program will help to ensure equal access is available to all survivors through FEMA programs.

5 – It encourages us to work with our partners to improve. 

We recognize that we don’t always know the answers; instead, we work with partners to figure out the best ways to reach people. For example, after Typhoon Mawar struck Guam in May 2023, parents of children with autism faced unique challenges in registering for FEMA assistance. To ease the process, FEMA collaborated with Autism Community Together (ACT), a local non-profit organization, to provide much-needed support and relief to these parents.

We welcome feedback from our partners that help us to better meet the needs of communities and survivors. It’s important that equitable programs not only exist, but that all people have the same access to them. This means getting involved at every level of government and community during all phases of emergency management.

“We have taken an expanded approach to our work that goes beyond compliance with the Rehabilitation Act,” said Director of the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination Sherman Gillums. “We work to serve all people with disabilities―including people with intellectual, developmental and cognitive needs that impact daily function, those with access and functional needs and older adults. We want to broaden the scope of our commitment, while using these foundational civil rights laws as our guiding principles.”  

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