Disability advocates fear NJ may ignore pleas to include them in disaster planning
Amid a pandemic in which they often felt abandoned, people with disabilities in New Jersey want to make sure they fare better in future emergencies.
But their voices need to be heard for that to happen, and advocates say that chance may be slipping away as lawmakers prepare to go home for the holidays.
Two bills that would require the state Office of Emergency Management to hire coordinators with experience in disability issues remain stuck in committee, and it's unclear whether they'll get a vote before the state Assembly and Senate end their legislative sessions later this month.
“New Jersey’s COVID cases are up again," Javier Robles, an organizer of the New Jersey Disability Action Committee, said in an interview. "We don’t know what the next day, week or month is going to bring and we continue to not be prepared. We continue to not invest in long-standing personnel and agencies. We need to be proactive with this stuff and not reactive.”
The matching bills in the Senate (S-3659) and Assembly (A-5582) call for establishing four full-time positions at the state Office of Emergency Management devoted to the needs of people with disabilities in emergencies and disasters.
Sponsors of the bills in the Democratic-controlled Legislature didn't respond to inquires from The Record and NorthJersey.com over the last week. Rose Greenblatt, a co-chair of the Disability Action Committee, said one of those legislators, state Linda Greenstein, said the bill would receive a vote in a Senate committee this session.
It would still need to pass the full chamber and the Assembly to become law.
Measures not voted on by the end of the Legislature's lame-duck session will be dead, and advocates worry they’ll have to start from scratch when a new Senate and Assembly reconvene in January. The Disability Action Committee is calling on the sponsors to get moving, said Robles, an instructor in Rutgers' Department of Kinesiology and Health.
“We need to have them release the bills,” he said.
The committee issued a scathing report in the fall of 2020 that detailed how New Jersey failed to protect its disabled population during the pandemic. The group is comprised of people with disabilities, family members, advocacy groups and institutions like the state's Independent Living Council and the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities.
Last minute, ad hoc plans made without input from the community left some of the state’s most vulnerable residents without protective gear, food or transportation even as the general public emptied critical supplies from store shelves during the lockdown, the groups found.
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Improving emergency planning and management was one of the key reforms the commission called for. Among the four positions to be added to the state office, three would take part in disaster planning in each of the state’s regions – North, Central and South – while a fourth person would serve as a supervisor, coordinating efforts across the state.
Their responsibilities would include making sure first responders and aid groups understand how to make transportation and shelters accessible during emergencies. Advocates also want to ensure the state can adequately communicate with people with vision or hearing disabilities, as well as those in the community with limited English proficiency.
That would help “ensure the safety and security” of the one in four New Jerseyans living with a disability, according to the Disability Action Committee's report.
“This bill is really at the core of some of the reporting that we did," said Robles. "It makes them hire people to handle some of the issues we saw in the pandemic."
The state office is critical to more than just pandemic planning, he added. Increased rain, snow and flooding – from Superstorm Sandy through the remnants of Hurricane Ida and beyond – have served as wake-up calls about the state's increasing vulnerability in an era of climate change, Robles said.
A dedicated voice for people with disabilities would allow the state to put long-term protections in place and avoid “knee-jerk” reactions, he said.
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The legislation is key because "the state's COVID response left people with disabilities behind,” said Norman Smith, chairman of the New Jersey Independent Living Council. Each region needs a dedicated staff member because New Jersey is so diverse, he added.
The bills' primary sponsors include Democrats Greenstein and Nellie Pou, who represents parts of Passaic and Bergen counties, in the Senate. In the Assembly, sponsors include Annette Quijano, Angela V. McKnight and Raj Mukherji, all Democrats.
Gene Myers is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: NJ disability advocates want more say in emergency planning