Disability Advocates and District of Columbia Reach Landmark Settlement to Protect the Lives of People with Disabilities when Disaster Strikes

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Washington DC in winter, a snowy landscape with the Washington Monument in the background
Washington DC in winter, a snowy landscape with the Washington Monument in the background via Flickr


MAY 7, 2019 – Washington, DC – Disability advocacy groups and the District of Columbia have reached a groundbreaking settlement agreement after years of negotiations that will result in significant improvements to the District’s emergency preparedness and response programs for thousands of people with disabilities who live in, work in, or travel to the nation’s capital for tourism and communications with their elected representatives.  The agreement settles a 2014 lawsuit filed on behalf of United Spinal Association, DC Center for Independent Living, and two District residents with disabilities, represented by Disability Rights Advocates, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP. 

The lawsuit alleged a myriad of critical deficiencies which, if left unaddressed, would have resulted in people with disabilities being left behind in large scale disasters.  These problems included not putting accessible evacuation options in place and not planning for emergency communications with persons with hearing and vision disabilities.

Under the historic settlement, the District has agreed to a comprehensive three-year plan that includes: (1) creating a Disability Community Advisory Group that will provide disability-specific recommendations for emergency plans and trainings, (2) ensuring that emergency-related public communications are disseminated in accessible formats, (3) considering physical accessibility as a priority when opening emergency shelters, (4) creating a Post-Emergency Canvassing Operation plan, (5) ensuring that transportation resources are sufficient to meet the potential demand for accessible transportation during emergencies, and (6) creating and implementing a work plan to improve procedures for evacuating people with disabilities from high-rise buildings.

“As DRA has seen in our emergency planning work in cities throughout the country, specific planning for the needs of people with disabilities can make the difference between life and death in an emergency,” said Rebecca Rodgers, Staff Attorney at Disability Rights Advocates.  “We are glad that the nation’s capital will make the necessary improvements to ensure that people with disabilities are included in every part of emergency preparedness, response, and recovery.”   

“This settlement will result in life-changing results for thousands of District residents with disabilities, as well as the thousands of individuals who work in or travel to the District,” said Brianna Silverstein of Drinker Biddle.

“The comprehensive approach to emergency planning embodied in this agreement is the best way to ensure people with disabilities are included in emergency planning efforts,” said Hannah Lieberman, Legal Director at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

“Because of this agreement, our members and all people with disabilities in the District will be safer during any future disasters,” said Alexandra Bennewith, Vice President, Government Relations in United Spinal’s Washington DC office.  “The settlement provides additional security to our members who visit the District to speak with their elected representatives.”  

“We are pleased that the District will work with the disability community in the process of improving its emergency preparedness plans,” said Richard Simms, Executive Director of the DC Center for Independent Living.  “This agreement will reduce the risk to people with disabilities during emergencies.”  


About Disability Rights Advocates (DRA)

With offices in New York and California, Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) is one of the leading non-profit disability rights legal centers in the nation. DRA’s mission is to advance equal rights and opportunities for people with all types of disabilities nationwide. As part of that mission, DRA has advocated successfully for emergency preparedness plans that include people with disabilities in multiple cities in California, Arizona, and New York City, where DRA achieved a court ruling that the City discriminated against people with disabilities in its failure to plan for their needs in large-scale disasters such as Hurricane Sandy. Learn more at dralegal.org.

About Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs

The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs was established in 1968 to provide pro bono legal services to address issues of discrimination and entrenched poverty. Since then, it has successfully handled thousands of civil rights cases on behalf of individuals and groups in the areas of fair housing, equal employment opportunity, public accommodations, immigrant rights, disability rights, public education, and prisoners’ rights. For more information, please visit www.washlaw.org or call 202.319.1000. Follow us on Twitter at @WashLaw4CR.

About Drinker Biddle

Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP is a national, full-service law firm with nearly 575 attorneys in 13 offices across the United States and in London. The firm provides a range of comprehensive legal services in corporate and securities, litigation, government and regulatory affairs, health care, products liability, corporate restructuring, investment management, labor and employment, insurance litigation, intellectual property, employee benefits and executive compensation, environment and energy, white collar defense and corporate investigations, trusts and estates, and real estate. Founded 170 years ago, the firm has a long history of pro bono work, and lawyers from Drinker Biddle’s Washington, D.C. office handled this case in conjunction with its Barbara McDowell High Impact Pro Bono Initiative, named for Barbara McDowell, a well-known public interest lawyer in Washington, D.C. For more information, visit www.drinkerbiddle.com.


Rebecca Rodgers: (212) 644-8644, rrodgers@dralegal.org
Gregg Kelley: (202) 319-1070, gregg_kelley@washlaw.org
Lawrence Martinez (310) 203-4078, lawrence.martinez@dbr.com