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Preserving Our Freedom: Ending Institutionalization of People with Disabilities During and After Disasters

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Photo shows two people, waist down, walking on a wet sidewalk with a blonde lab seeing eye dog on the far right of the picture, held by a leash by the person in the middle of the picture. The person on the far left of the photo is wearing gray pants and green galoshes, and the person in the center of the photo is wearing blue jeans, a lime green jacket, and white shoes. The person in the center of the photo is holding a white cane in one hand and a red leash to the seeing eye dog in the other.

May 24, 2019

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SCOPE: This report examines occurrences of institutionalization of people with disabilities, as well as threats of institutionalization that were thwarted, in 2017 and 2018, including during Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, Florence, and Michael, and the California wildfires. This report:

  • Examines how, when, and why people with disabilities were institutionalized during and after recent disasters.
  • Examines the systemic issues that continue to cause institutionalization of persons with disabilities. 
  • Discusses the grave short- and-long-term physical, mental, and financial consequences that institutionalization wreaks.
  • Provides recommendations and promising practices that would enable federal agencies to eliminate institutionalization of persons with disabilities during future disasters.

SUMMARY: NCD examined available data from several major storms and disasters and found that people with disabilities are frequently institutionalized during and after disasters due to conflicting federal guidance; a lack of equal access to emergency and disaster-related programs and services; and a lack of compliance with federal law.

The report, which focuses on the reasons people with disabilities experience involuntary institutionalization as a result of disasters, found that the Federal Government offers conflicting guidance on the topic.

The report also found that recipients of federal funds do not have training for how to comply with federal requirements to provide equal access to emergency and disaster-related programs and services when using federal dollars, nor do they have the cultural competence to interact with people with disabilities and often adhere to stereotypes and myths about disability that results in institutional placement. As a result of unnecessary institutionalizations during and after disasters, people with disabilities often go unaccounted for, families are separated from loved ones, working individuals with disabilities often become unemployed, and students with disabilities are often excluded from returning to school with their peers. The report concludes with recommendations for federal policymakers.