November 09, 2005

After the storms: shelters lack access

A Congressional briefing on "Emergency Management and People with Disabilities: Before, During and After" scheduled for this Thursday (Nov. 10) will try again to put the spotlight on problems people with disabilities face in disasters like the hurricanes that have ravaged Florida and the Gulf Coast. Chaired by Rep. James Langevin (D-RI) and Rep. James Ramstad (R-MN), the briefing will involve the National Council on Disability, the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, the National Organization on Disability, the National Council on Independent Living and the Paralyzed Veterans of America. (More on the hearing.)

What happens to people with disabilities during a disaster?

Fred Shotz, moderator of the ADA-LAWS email list, has spent the last two weeks visiting the Red Cross shelters in Broward County, Florida. Here's his report:

My experiences from spending almost two weeks now at Red Cross shelters in Broward County points out that discrimination against people with disabilities is alive and well. I am grateful that I have my own motor home parked in the parking lot of the shelter. If I had to actually stay in the shelter I would simply be out of luck.

The county provides schools for the Red Cross to use as shelters. Anyone who has followed the issues of accessible voting locations knows of the problems with access to public schools. Since schools only have to be accessible when they have students or parents of students who need accessibility due to disability, and then the schools only have to meet the needs of those students or parents, most schools are far from ADA compliant.

I have been at two shelters. I went to the first shelter the day after Hurricane Wilma, and to the second shelter when we were given 90 minutes notice that the shelter where many of us were staying was being closed.

In neither shelter are there any toilets that are accessible. Each restroom has what is supposed to be an accessible toilet stall and the size of the stall meets ADAAG requirements. But they have installed a lavatory in each "accessible" toilet stall that blocks the lateral transfer space next to the water closet. Unless one is able to make a standing transfer, including turning while standing, there is no way to use these toilets. I am not the only wheelchair user at this shelter, but I am the only one with his own bathroom -- in my motor home.

There are 5 other wheelchair users here and several people using walkers. I spoke to one man who is using a urinal and a bed pan from the nearby hospital in a janitor's closet for his elimination needs. Two people have to lift him up and get the bed pan under him. If one toilet stall had lateral transfer space, he would be able to use the toilet.

Then there is the eating issue. Three meals are provided, but no tables where a person using a wheelchair can sit. The Red Cross volunteers are very helpful in assisting people with disabilities who need help getting their food, but they can't manufacture a wheelchair accessible table. I guess no one with the county or with the Red Cross ever considered things such as wheelchair accessible tables or wheelchair accessible toilets.

Much worse than the lack of accessible elements is the attitude I find here, especially by the police -- but also by county officials and to some extent by the Red Cross. When I first went to a shelter it took almost two hours to be allowed to stay, with me staying in my motor home, because I have service dogs. I had to speak with the director of emergency management for the county to get "permission" to stay at the shelter even though state law makes denying equal access to a person with a disability with a service dog a criminal offense.

When I had to change shelters the problem began all over. In my first 24 hours at the second shelter I spent about 4 hours in three different confrontations/meetings with the police. I ended up speaking with 4 different commanders, 6 different sergeants, and an even greater number of deputies. Just think how stressful it is to go through a hurricane and the aftermath and to on top of that be constantly hassled and confronted by the police!

Beyond the service dog issue there is the issue of absolute insensitivity. When I got to this shelter I found that a good amount of broken glass on the ground had been swept into the three accessible parking spaces and the adjacent access aisles. I had to spend about an hour with a broom sweeping the glass from the access aisles so that I could get from the parking lot to the building entrance without getting flat tires. This same issue resulted in me getting a flat tire at the first shelter. With the access aisles clear and the curb ramp clear I thought things were in good shape. Then I found that they decided to use a large trash container to hold open the door to the shelter. That resulted in the door opening being too narrow for my wheelchair (24-1/2 inches wide - ADAAG requires 32 inches of clear width). I asked them to use some rope to hold the door open. They replaced the trash can with a chair that gave no additional clear width. After I complained some more then simply left the door closed so each person entering or exiting the building has to pull open the door which requires a pull force exceeding 15 pounds.

But it gets worse. A few days ago I wanted to go into the shelter to see the nurse. When I got to the broken glass-free access aisle I found that a veterans' bus -- a mobile healthcare facility -- had parked blocking the curb ramp. There is about 150 feet of curb line. but the bus was parked in front of the ramp with the painted crosswalk going under the bus. I complained to the U.S. Public Health Service officer in charge of the medical unit and she offered to have the bus moved. Since it was leaving in another hour, and moving the bus would disrupt their treatment of people, I said that the bus could stay if she would educate the driver to not block the curb ramp again. I got to sit in the street and in the hot sun to get seen by the nurse since I could not get on the sidewalk and under the shade canopy.

Then I went to speak with the police simply to ask how, with 14 deputy sheriffs on duty at all times, did not one deputy suggest to the bus driver that it was illegal to park in front of the curb ramp. The sergeant in charge of the police unit told me that there was another ramp about 200 feet away that I could use. Of course to get to that ramp I had to go past the blocked ramp, travel the 200 feet in a busy vehicle traffic lane, and then go back the 200 feet on the sidewalk to where I had started. This path of travel resulted in having to push an extra 800 feet (400 to get in and 400 to leave). But the corker was when the sergeant stated that the bus was an emergency vehicle and it could therefore lawfully park in front of the curb ramp. I immediately went to the commanding officer of the U.S. Public Health Service and verified that the bus was not an emergency vehicle and was simply providing routine healthcare to people in the shelter who did not have access to their own physicians. She was shocked when I told her that the police stated that the bus was an emergency vehicle that could ignore the law concerning accessibility.

I then went back into the shelter to speak with the on-site commanding officer of the police detail. He was sitting at a table doing absolutely nothing. On the side of the table where I could approach him sat a deputy doing paperwork. As I was about 10 feet from the table that deputy stated, "don't bring that dog near me". The commanding officer did nothing about her violation of my rights and simply ignored me when I tried to speak with him. He had a jacket covering his name tag and badge and ignored my requests for his name and badge number. When I asked a deputy sitting next to the commanding officer for the name and badge number of the sergeant who declared the bus an emergency vehicle and the name and badge number of the commanding officer, I was told I would have to make that request at the public service office of the police department. That office is about 10 miles from the shelter.

Just a few more tidbits about the police: I complained 3 times about vehicles parked in the accessible parking spaces in front of the shelter entrance with no parking permits. In every case the vehicle was the personal vehicle of one of the police officers on duty. When I got angry over a police officer telling me that I could not have my service dogs on the grounds of the shelter and raised my voice, I was told that I was acting in a disorderly manner and would be ordered to leave the shelter.

They can violate our rights, but we are not allowed to express our anger over their discrimination.

Today the medical bus returned and did not block the curb ramp. Instead, one of the police officers parked his personal vehicle in front of the ramp.

When I objected to the lack of any accessible tables I was told by the Red Cross shelter manager that this is not a "special needs shelter" and there was therefore no requirement for anything to be accessible. I asked him to show me in the law where shelters are exempt from the ADA and from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (before the hurricane I was told that because I can care for myself I did not qualify for a special needs shelter).

Going though the hurricane was not bad. Dealing with the discrimination against people with disabilities by the county, by the Red Cross, and by the police is much worse than the storm.

Posted on November 09, 2005