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The Disabled, in an Emergency

Labor Department Office Urges Government Agencies to Be Prepared

By Michael Zimmerman
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, September 2, 2004; Page A21

At a time when federal agencies, like private companies and individuals, are preparing for the worst in case of a terrorist attack, the Labor Department says there are steps the government should take in emergency preparedness planning for its workers with disabilities.

More than 120,000 federal workers with disabilities are particularly vulnerable during an emergency, so the department wants agencies to do a better job of finding shelter and evacuating disabled employees.

Nadia Ibrahim, an Office of Disability Employment Policy employee, meets with Assistant Labor Secretary W. Roy Grizzard Jr. (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

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To prepare workers for any circumstance, the Labor Department's Office of Disability Employment Policy recently released recommendations on emergency preparedness for people with disabilities.

"The goal is to increase awareness and encourage federal agencies to include people with disabilities," said Nadia Ibrahim, policy adviser at the ODEP.

Ibrahim 33, who was born with cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, is one of several individuals who contributed to the report. "I felt that it was necessary to get the word out on what to do in an emergency," Ibrahim said.

In the 80-page report, managers are given detailed information on promoting safety for their employees with disabilities. The recommendations include purchasing evacuation chairs, which are mobility devices, so people with disabilities can be moved to an area or floor where emergency response personnel can assist them.

The proposal also suggests informing the fire department in advance about employees with disabilities and using floor wardens and zone monitors to keep track of them. The report notes that the Labor Department includes general floor plans of its facility and an illustration of collection points for people evacuating the building.

The ODEP report suggests that officials provide training for those requiring assistance and those providing assistance. Other specific plans include audible directional signs, Braille signage for employees who are blind or have poor vision, and extra wheelchairs in the stairwells and the main lobby.

The goal for managers is to think ahead and be ready for whatever emergency might come along by bolstering existing emergency plans to take into account disabled employees, said Michael J. Volpe of ODEP's public affairs unit. He said the Labor Department, for instance, runs drills every few months, and has an emergency evacuation board that evaluates procedures.

"Emergency preparedness should never be a static situation; it's something that should always be evolving," said W. Roy Grizzard Jr., assistant secretary of labor in charge of the ODEP.

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