As the country celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it presents an opportunity to see how far we have come since the enactment of one of our country’s great civil rights laws, but it is also a measure of how much farther we have to go. When it comes to this anniversary and FEMA, Administrator Craig Fugate has let it be known that he recognizes how much there is for his agency and our country to do in making sure people with disabilities and special needs are not forgotten during times of emergencies/disasters.
While many will cynically see these efforts as pure “Washington spin” to coincide with a particular historical anniversary, they are actually very bold steps. Fugate has essentially put himself and his agency front and center on the public stage and declared, “the previous status quo of handling these issues does not cut it. We have to do better and we will do better.”
In a town where people of every political stripe are looking for measures to point out one another’s shortcomings and failures, Fugate has put his agency and his professional community (emergency management) on the line to address needs that have been dramatically under served and unacknowledged for far too long.
Washington is full of people who make promises and bold statements but have little courage or willingness to deliver or back them up. Fugate has shown again his ability to be the un-Washington guy by admitting the shortcomings of the past while carving a path towards a better future. He did this early in his tenure by taking on the emotional issues associated with dealing with children in emergencies and disasters, and he appears to have no reservations about taking on this equally necessary and emotional issue as well.
With the recent signature of an MOA with the National Council on Independent Living and his other public comments, including those made in his confirmation hearing (Spring 2009), Fugate has laid down the very performance metrics by which he and his colleagues will be held accountable. That’s a metric that I don’t think any other DHS leader has put upon themselves or their departmental component, and it is worthy of note.
There are no wiggle words associated with what he’s offered either. While he has not promised that everything will be perfect, (an impossibility for any organization, especially one that works in disasters), he has gone on the record that all of us will see the improvements in planning, operations and performance when it comes to the disabled/special needs communities. Such improvements are twenty-plus years overdue.
For those of us who have full mobility, we can not begin to appreciate the fear, frustration and angst of those who can not exit a building with ease during an emergency. Maybe that’s why I and others feel with the bold and personal commitments by the FEMA administrator that we’re taking the steps in the right direction. The way he has given his word on these issues is different from the promises of the past. He’s made this personal.
In taking on the leadership role that will carve the path to the necessary improvements, Fugate has also put this issue into our own individual laps as well. He’s asked us to do our part in the planning, preparedness and response for family, friends, co-workers and neighbors that could use that extra hand. Those actions alone will save countless lives and under those terms, it’s hard not to recognize how personal this issue really is.