This is in sharp contrast to how things worked during Hurricane Katrina and the Iowa floods. Back then assistive technology (AT) programs responded, but in a grassroots way without federal help or acknowledgment. Indeed it wasn’t until the well publicized neglect of people with disabilities during Katrina that the need for systems change became glaringly obvious. Today, however, Marcie Roth has changed business as usual. Appointed Senior Advisor on Disability Issues at FEMA last June, and promoted to Director of FEMA’s Office of Disability Integration and Coordination in February, Roth is working hard to bring disability agencies into the emergency preparedness fold and, according to George Heake (consultant with the Pass It On Center), instill an ethic of collaboration with private grassroots organizations. Put simply, whereas in the past disability programs responded to emergencies off the grid, today we are getting wired in.
Wired in how, exactly? “It started with aid to American Samoa,” Heake reports. Since then FEMA has designated Heake a National Point of Contact, thereby granting him access to the Aidmatrix and Airlink online portals for relief donations. “It’s how we coordinate our intelligence all the way up the food chain.” The Aidmatrix Foundation is a nonprofit that specializes in donations management for NGOs, governments, and businesses, and is a subcontractor of USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development. Heake, acting on behalf of the PIOC and ATAP, posts needs to these websites, confirmed needs he has gleaned from his contacts on the ground in Haiti. He also reviews and claims donations pledged by other donating entities.
In this way, Heake’s access to Aidmatrix and Airlink represents a satisfying breakthrough for the U.S. disability community’s capacity to respond to emergencies. Now large volumes of donated supplies can be moved for the benefit of people with disabilities. This is capacity that is particularly important in the Haiti context. “Being disability-centric,” Heake emphasizes, “we really feel the urgency to respond very quickly to Haiti and not be the last ones to come in. Because in Haiti, people with disabilities are a part of a population that was invisible and marginalized before—in an economy and population that is extremely poor—and once this disaster happened… they were in danger of becoming ghosts if we didn’t react fast.”
He notes, too, the power of the AT program listservs. “It’s not rocket science, but it’s how we get the majority of our response. Our network represents the largest disaster response capacity for AT and durable medical equipment in the world."