The Federal Emergency Management Agency has named Linda Mastandrea, a disability-rights lawyer, Paralympian and long-time New Mobility contributor, to head its Office of Disability Integration and Coordination. Her official start date is October 1, but Mastandrea has been working in the role since being called to Washington to help with recovery efforts during Hurricane Harvey.
Mastandrea, who uses a wheelchair and has cerebral palsy, brings years of experience to the ODIC having worked as an emergency management consultant as well as serving as a disability integration advisor reservist for FEMA.
The ODIC’s primary role is to provide specialized support services to people with disabilities who have been affected by natural disasters. For wheelchair users, some of these services include ensuring that people with disabilities have access to appropriate medical care and durable medical equipment, and finding accessible temporary housing after a disaster if people’s homes have been damaged or destroyed.
In disaster situations, “a disability integration advisor is part of that first-response team,” she says. The range of services that the ODIC provides and how they provide them can vary from disaster to disaster. “We’re fortunate that we have advisors that have a pretty broad bank of knowledge on different programs, and services, needs of people with disabilities so that we’re able to effectively advise on our program areas and get people the help they need.”
During the rest of the year, the ODIC’s role is to provide education and training to the broader FEMA regional network, states, and first-responders. It hasn’t always been the case that people with disabilities have received effective assistance during natural disasters. There are stories of people being evacuated without their wheelchairs, or of shelters having the ramped entrance block or locked.
But Mastandrea says that significant progress has been made since the ODIC was founded in 2010. She hopes to continue that work so that every region and level of FEMA is able to consider the needs of people with disabilities when planning and executing emergency response. “My goal is over time, through working with the regions and the states that we sort of establish a baseline of what has to happen with emergency response [for people with disabilities],” she says.
A big part of disaster preparedness also comes down to personal preparedness, which is why the ODIC provides education and outreach to the public. Mastandrea recommends that people with disabilities have a plan in place that includes:
1. Knowing what you will need if you have to evacuate, what to take with you.
2. Knowing where you need to go.
3. If there are a mix of accessible and inaccessible shelters in your area, tapping into where the accessible ones are.
As scientists predict that extreme weather events are going to happen more frequently and with greater intensity as global temperatures continue to rise, establishing a plan for personal emergency preparedness may be more important than ever.