Lisa Herron reimagines a more inclusive emergency management system

People with disabilities and older folks count on the strength of inclusive and accessible infrastructure–housing, transit, internet networks—on what emergency managers call “blue sky days.” But, what happens when traditional infrastructure crumbles during natural disasters and blue skies disappear?

Lisa Herron explores how people with disabilities are taking the lead on inclusive emergency management in local communities and even, at state and federal level.

For more information: 

The Disability Visibility Project:

Easy Does It:

Inclusive Disaster Strategies:

READI for Disasters Act:



LISA HERRON: Alice Wong is a disability rights activist and runs the Disability Visibility Project. She also happens to be a wheelchair user who uses a ventilator to help her breathe.

ALICE WONG: Time and time again with these natural disasters, it is our people who are always the ones left behind, and we’re the ones who are going to die.

LISA: The “us” that she’s referring to is people with disabilities, people with chronic illnesses, and people that are older.

ALICE: We paraphrase Darwin: it’s survival of the most able.

LISA: Survival of the most able. It’s not just anyone who is surviving these disasters; it’s people that are considered able-bodied or “normal.” We saw this most recently in the Camp Fire, where 85 people died, majority of who were elderly or people with disabilities.

ALICE: Our lives just don’t even show up in their consciousness. The idea that we are just so outside of the realm of what they think of as their community.

LISA: Being ignored or being invisible to others is a form of marginalization. It also happens at a larger, structural level with the government.

ALICE: Decision-making is very much centered on an able-bodied norm.

LISA: For example, in the 60s and 70s, the disability rights movement pushed to think outside of able-bodied norms to change the way that we design cities and infrastructure.

[recorded clip plays of Ed Roberts speaking to a crowd through a megaphone]

ED ROBERTS: We’ll reshape the image that this society has of us. We are no longer asking for charity. We are demanding our rights.

[crowd cheers, applauds]

LISA: Ed Roberts, who you just heard, and other disability activists are the reason why now, in most buildings, you’ll see a ramp entrance. Why on sidewalks, you’ll see curb cuts that allow for people using all forms of wheels.

These seem like simple fixes, but in reality, it took years of advocacy and something more. To Alice, its….

ALICE: Having the imagination that we can do things differently.

LISA: Do we have the imagination to rethink the status quo in an area as colossal as emergency management and disaster planning?

NIKKI BROWN: If we’re really asking people to think about how they are connecting to their community and how the community is connecting to them. ‘Cause we know that in a disaster, there’s going to be a lag time before they can actually help everyone.

LISA: Nikki Brown is Executive Director of Easy Does It. When paratransit doesn’t show up, or a personal care attendant cancels on a client, Easy Does It is there. Nikki, also a wheelchair user, realized that they could do more. They launched a program to bring disaster planning home, going client by client, asking this one question.

NIKKI: What will they need for a week in order to survive?

LISA: Nikki points to lessons learned from 2017 disasters, the basics of what people need to live.

NIKKI: The Santa Rosa fires and Napa Fires, some people didn’t even know what medications they were taking, how often, and like a very simple preparedness thing they could’ve done was just have a list so that they could literally hand that list to someone who could then help them get what they needed.

LISA: Preparing a list of medications is just one thing an individual can do before a disaster. But disaster prep goes beyond the home; it requires cooperation and support from each other and from the government.

Last week, Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania proposed the Ready for Disasters Act.

MARCIE ROTH: It was written largely through the contributions of people with disabilities, disability organizations.

LISA: Marcie Roth is the founder of Inclusive Disaster Strategies, a coalition of disability organizations and a key partner for the bill.

MARCIE: When we fail to adequately plan for people with disabilities, not only does it affect them, it affects their whole community.

LISA: This idea that planning for people with disabilities is universally beneficial is something that underpins the bill.

MICHAEL MCCORMICK: This is about making sure that everyone is included in the process of preparing for disasters, and their needs are being met when we respond to those disasters.

LISA: Michael McCormick, the Disability Policy Director of Senator Casey’s office walked me through. Why would a Senator from Pennsylvania be interested in this?

MICHAEL: There was essentially a diaspora out of Puerto Rico into some of the Northeastern states. Senator was concerned that a large number of people with disabilities may not be getting the support they need.

LISA: Casey is joined by co-sponsors from Minnesota, Illinois, and other New England states, which is a good indication impacts of climate change-related disasters are already reverberating outside of disaster zones.

Marcie, the founder of Inclusive Disaster Strategies, is hopeful that the bill will garner bipartisan support.

[mellow music]

MARCIE: Disasters know no parties. Impact of disasters are the same, whether it’s a red or a blue state.

LISA: Passage of the bill requires many things: political will and even imagination.

If you want to learn more about the Ready for Disasters Act or how you can be part of imagining a more inclusive way to prep and respond to disasters, be sure to go to And for North Gate Radio, I’m Lisa Herron.





REPORTER: Lisa Herron
MUSIC: Feist, Caught in a Long Wind
PHOTO CAPTION & CREDIT: Patient No More, Ed Roberts | Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability

Air Date

December 2018