Disabled Populations and People with Functional Limitations

The Promising Practices

Vulnerable Populations Action Team

Seattle King County Public Health
Seattle, WA

When Words Are Not Enough

Woodside Fire Protection District
Woodside, CA

OK-WARN: A Remote Notification Program for the Hearing Impaired

Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management
Oklahoma City, OK


Citizen Voice
Sacramento, CA

The Special Needs Assistance Program (SNAP)

Fort Worth Office of Emergency Management
Fort Worth, TX


There are many people with conditions that make them unusually vulnerable to harm during a public health emergency. Among them are those who are visually, hearing or speaking, or cognitively impaired as well as those with physical limitations. Moreover, people with a health condition such as pregnancy, obesity, asthma, or diabetes may have mobility limitations like those with physical disabilities. As a result, it is important for planners to consider a wide range of functional limitations that constrain the capacity of an individual to react to a public health emergency.

There are a number of issues relevant to developing emergency response plans for these populations:

  • Both the level of disability or functional limitation and the nature and severity of the emergency event will vary widely; these are significant factors in determining the extent to which an individual will need assistance; and
  • People who are visually impaired, deaf or hearing impaired, or cognitively impaired are limited in their ability to receive warning messages or to communicate.

Effective public health emergency preparedness planning also requires consideration of points critical to each individual population:

  • In dangerous environments or cluttered areas, visually impaired individuals are at increased risk of injuries, particularly if they become separated from their service animals or assistive devices (e.g., canes).
  • Cognitively impaired persons may not understand what is happening or be able to cope with the event; they may become easily confused and upset in unfamiliar surroundings, with people they do not know, or in unusual situations, particularly those that are chaotic.
  • Cognitively impaired persons may be particularly vulnerable if they become separated from caregivers or are in mass shelters where others may take advantage of their limitations.
  • Physical limitations can reduce mobility raising concerns for both evacuation and navigating mass care shelters.

Strategies and Resources for Addressing the Public Health Emergency Needs of Populations with Functional Limitations

Why is this group at greater risk? How can planners help this group? What resources are available to help?
Difficulty planning due to population's diverse needs
  1. Engage community-based organizations that serve these populations
  2. Identify the most pressing needs among disabled and functionally limited populations using risk assessments and tabletop exercises
Communication challenges
  1. Coordinate with Community-based organizations (CBOs) to develop calling trees
  2. Offer a telephone messaging service for the visually impaired
  3. Translate all communications into Braille, non-auditory formats, and create simplified versions and formats which incorporate pictures, drawings or objects
  4. Train first responders to communicate with people who are cognitively impaired
Difficulty navigating unfamiliar surroundings
  1. Train first responders to assist people with visual impairments
Service disruptions
  1. Develop a community-based network to provide assistance to people with physical limitations
  2. Encourage individuals with physical limitations to assess their needs before a disaster and take actions to prepare
Evacuation challenges
  1. Develop plans for identifying, ahead of time if possible, people needing assistance to evacuate
  2. Develop evacuation plans that ensure access to special equipment (e.g., portable oxygen tanks, devices to secure wheel chairs) needed to evacuate people with physical limitations
Challenges of mass care shelters
  1. Ensure mass care plans address the special needs of people with physical limitations
  2. Use intake assessments to identify functional independence needs