Ep. 4 What Festivals Can Teach Us About Accessibility During Disaster

Jessica Wallach, Accessibility Lead of Majestic Collaborations, hosts a panel discussion that focuses on the intersection of accessibility and safety in mass gatherings, including at one of Nevada’s most famous festivals: Burning Man. The speakers highlight the importance of acknowledging the labor of emergency frontline workers and making emergency management accessible to all. They discuss the unique challenges and collaborations in Nevada, particularly in terms of accessibility at outdoor mass gatherings like Burning Man.

Learn more with us about the need for creative and practical solutions for people with disabilities, such as alternative methods of accessing elevated areas and adapting mobility equipment for different terrains. Our speakers also share tips about the importance of communication, practice drills, and building relationships with the disability community in emergency planning.

This episode is brought to you by Majestic Collaborations & Performing Arts Readiness. It includes recordings from a panel Majestic Collaborations led in February 2024 at the Nevada Preparedness Summit in Las Vegas, NV, organized by the Nevada Emergency Preparedness Association (NEPA).

Jessica Wallach is Majestic Collaboration’s Accessibility Lead, in addition to being a working artist, educator, and disability advocate. Her project The Body is Good unites these passions, inviting people to reimagine space as a love letter to the body.

Heather Lafferty is the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Access and Functional Needs Coordinator at the Nevada Division of Emergency Management. She is also a member of the Nevada Resilience Advisory Committee, where she advocates and supports the incorporation and consideration of individuals with disabilities and others with access and functional needs before, during, and after disasters. A grassroots scholar in disability advocacy, Heather co-created the Nevada Access & Functional Needs Working Group, a consortium of disability service providers, government and non-government agencies, and advocacy organizations that provide services to individuals with disabilities and others with access and functional needs.

Rat Lady is the Camp Lead at Mobility Camp at the annual Burning Man Festival. Mobility Camp is devoted to improving access at the festival, connecting campers with resources, organizing Art Tours, and much more.

Irene Navis currently serves as the Nevada Coordinator for the Western Region Alliance for Pediatric Emergency Management (WRAP-EM) and a project manager in the Pediatric Pandemic Network (PPN). Irene retired from the public sector in February 2018, having spent the last 5+ years of her 30-year career with Clark County, Nevada as the Assistant Emergency Manager. Irene’s expertise includes emergency management, continuity of operations planning, nuclear waste management, grant writing and coordination, strategic planning, and meeting facilitation.

Timestamps, where included, are approximate.

First, a few definitions that might be helpful as you listen to this episode!

Access and functional needs (AFN) refers to individuals with and without disabilities, who may need additional assistance because of any condition that may limit their ability to act in an emergency.

Shelter in place: An official order or safety protocol that directs people to stay in the indoor place/building that they already occupy and not to leave unless absolutely necessary. Typically “shelter in place” refers to scenarios where everyone stays put, both people with and without access or functional needs.

Area of refuge: A place in a building designed to hold occupants during an emergency when evacuation may not be safe or possible. Historically it has often been the default protocol for people with mobility-reducing disabilities (“stay and await help”) during evacuations, with often disastrous consequences.

Want to learn more? This Youtube video and this NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) article go into more detail about areas of refuge in safety planning.

Imagery can be more universal than language. Make sure you’re up-to-date on the icon to indicate accessible means of egress… and make sure your building uses it properly as well!

Watch a video on accessible means of egress.

Defining Accessibility

  • Removal of barriers
  • Designing specifically for, by and with people with disabilities
  • Creating conditions so that people on the margins do not have to work harder to access resource, education, healthcare, the arts, employment etc
  • Crafting an environment, policies and practices for meaningful and respectful connections
  • Creating many access points of engagement
  • ALWAYS easier/cheaper to build accessibility in from the start than to retrofit

Types of Mobility Aides and other aids

  • Wheelchairs
  • Scooters
  • Walkers
  • Rolaters
  • Knee scooters
  • Crutches
  • Breathing devices

Matthew Kowal: Welcome to the Art of Mass Gatherings podcast for conversations and insights at the nexus of festivals and emergency preparedness. Since 2017, my co -hosts and I have convened symposiums around the US and Puerto Rico and met some truly inspiring thinkers and doers. This podcast transcends traditional event management, exploring how arts and emergency professionals can inform each other to develop diverse and savvy leadership, to expand what we mean by accessible,

From temporary and improvised innovations to permanent infrastructure optimizations, we can learn through the best of times to survive and thrive in the hard times. I’m Matt Kowall, co -founder of Majestic Collaborations. Our mission is to advance and enhance the power of gatherings. By organizing hundreds of events for over a million attendees, we’ve cultivated a distinctive approach that focuses on creating a lasting positive impact. We refer to this approach as the four pillars of: safety, sustainability, accessibility, and community engagement. There’s lots of advocates dedicated to each of these topics individually, but we’ll explore them collectively with my co-hosts and other topic experts. We’re grateful for the unwavering support from Performing Arts Readiness, whose dedication to venue preparedness has been crucial for numerous organizations. Join us in this exploration and become an active part of our conversation by sharing your insights directly in the Spotify player. Thanks for being here, and now let’s get into it.

Music: And it’s like a Northern Lights or a tornado

Jessica Wallach is here with me, the accessibility lead for the Art of Mass Gatherings to introduce this episode at the Nevada Emergency Preparedness Summit, where she brought together a great panel. Jessica, how are you doing?

Jessica Wallach: I’m doing fine. I was so excited about this panel, really, to be able to focus on disaster planning and accessibility by learning about accessibility at one of the biggest mass gatherings in the desert there ever was – Burning Man.

Matthew Kowal: You brought out a great speaker. What was her name?

Jessica Wallach: Her name is Rat Lady and she’s in charge of Mobility Camp at Burning Man.

Matthew Kowal: And emergency managers can learn from that kind of situation about how to make accessible design better?

Jessica Wallach: Absolutely. So there’s a lot to know around accessibility and meeting people’s functional needs in disasters. And the ADA is really important to know how to communicate and make all the plans for disasters and to make that ever important disaster response plan and have accessible shelters. But in that moment, when a disaster happens and all the environment changes, we need to be able to think afresh in that moment. And I think that’s what they do at Burning Man.

Matthew Kowal: Yeah, and I think it’s what you do all the time. You’re a person with lots of chops in arts, culture, making art that helps bring some perspective to all of us about the body is good and the way that you’ll say it is, what if the space was a love letter to the body? You’re thinking about this kind of thing on so many different levels, Jessica that it’s nice to take a moment and talk about it with these people you brought together in the panel. I’m excited for people to hear it. And then we really came to love Heather Lafferty, who spoke so well on this. What else did you love about Heather’s contribution?

Jessica Wallach: So I love how she thinks about access and functional needs, that it could be a person with or without disabilities who needs assistance because of any conditions.

The Division of Emergency Management works hard to use a whole community approach offering training and guidance to emergency managers, planners, disability advocates, and other service providers to plan for, respond to, and help communities recover from disasters. How could I not love that mission of hers?

Matthew Kowal: Right. You’ve put together some pretty great definitions of accessibility yourself. What are some of the things that would get people seeing how you see things?

Jessica Wallach: Well, the simple definition is the removal of barriers, right? Steps are a barrier. For a deaf person, people speaking without using sign language is a barrier. Let’s remove the barriers. I also like to say accessibility is designed specifically for, by, and with people with disabilities. Design that’s created for those on the margins, those with the hardest, most biggest challenges, who are most impacted and by doing so, making a rich environment and experience for everyone. We want to create conditions so that people on the margins do not have to work harder to access resources, education, healthcare, the arts, employment, and definitely disaster assistance.

Matthew Kowal: So it’s definitely more cost effective to wait until there’s an emergency and then do the response for fixing stuff? (joking)

Jessica Wallach: Oh, no, no, no. We want to plan. We want to invite people with disabilities into the planning process. We want to go to their planning processes. People with disabilities are organized. They have independent living centers they gather, they make plans, we need to know their plans, they need to be a part of the larger planning. It’s a two -way street and it is always cheaper and easier to build accessibility in from the start than to retrofit. So be talking to people in your community, make a plan with them, make sure it works for them by practicing and then make sure you ask them how they want to be a part of the solution, don’t assume they only need assistance.

Matthew Kowal: Well, this panel sure is gonna give people some things to think about in those regards. And I’ll also throw out a breadcrumb trail to the Art of Mass Gatherings podcast interview with Chris Soliz. Jessica was there and he’s a fire marshal and a planner for fire safety with lots to talk about in that you’ll have a conversation I’ll get you titillated about: Jessica said when 9 -11 happened, these areas of refuge that you would build for people with disabilities to wait for help – and they perished and how are we going to update these fire codes to be more savvy? And that episode got right into it. Jessica, what a great conversation people can tune into that episode for, right?

Jessica Wallach: Absolutely. Chris just knows so much about fire safety and really thinks well about accessibility and fire safety.

We think about safety, accessibility, sustainability, and community engagement. And Betty Siegel of the Kennedy Center said that your festivals shouldn’t be bigger than the accessibility you can afford to provide. And the other day, Matt, you had some really, an interesting take on this, a revelation, a change of your frame. What was that?

Matthew Kowal: We love Betty. She’s spoken at Art of Mass Gatherings before and she leads great national is a brain trust for Leadership Exchange at the Arts and Disability (LEAD) that Jessica has participated in a lot. And Betty said, when I heard that one way I was like, what if that sort of means the budget would be the same? Like you’d have like to be super prepared for whatever accessibility you budgeted half. And I was like, is that the amount or? Then maybe though: if the four pillars thinking would say, “have you put half of your time and resources into approaching all those things?”, then that might be a more easy like rule of thumb that if your safety, sustainability, and accessibility programs are well funded enough then you’re on the right track and especially if you add community engagement to it where you’re looking to grow the pie of who comes to your event, who’s volunteering, who’s paying and that this might be a bit of an antidote for a lot of… And who’s running. And who’s running, who’s on the stages, all of that. Yeah, absolutely. Well, we know we’re onto something interesting if we’re always able to circle back and look at these intersections of accessibility and sustainability. Jessica gives a great example of straws. If you outlaw or forbid straws for sustainability reasons, what about somebody who needs them for nutrition and hydration? Or another example would be if you have a sustainability program that got everybody to your event on their bike or on a bus by your shelter in place plan for a hailstorm was to go to your car and the parking lot’s empty.

Well, that’s why we need these four pillars. Think about them at the same time. And a lot of times you get one consultant or one advocate for a certain aspect and they’re gonna really maybe benefit for being in a group with a luminary like Jessica from all four pillars. And then you sort out how you’re gonna get your resources to do the most good across all four of those pillars.

Jessica Wallach: And I really, I think doing this work with you has made me realize how could you ever do accessibility without thinking about safety? How can you have a safety plan without thinking about accessibility? Thinking about safety leads you to think about accessibility and thinking about accessibility leads you to think about safety.

Matthew Kowal: Right. And the sustainability parts when we were in Puerto Rico, really seeing how some of these accessibility organizations were building solar units for people who needed the power to thrive and survive and then become a resilience hub for their neighborhoods. And our good friend, Will Heegaard with the Footprint Project has been looking at these intersections a lot and it’s been a fun sandbox to play in and it’s been fun traveling with you on all this Jessica and here we go with a great episode

Jessica Wallach: Here we go buckle up and get your favorite snack and have some fun thinking about disaster and accessibility and great events.

Music: …and it’s like the Northern Lights on a tornado

Jessica Wallach: Great. Welcome everybody. I’m very excited to be here. There are three of us on this panel. It is Heather, your access and functional needs coordinator. My name is Jessica and I’m The Art of Mass Gathering lead accessibility person. And then Rat Lady is here from the Mobility Camp and we want to really dive into mass gatherings and accessibility and that triangle or that overlay between accessibility and safety, right? They go hand in hand.

Before I jump into accessibility, I want to take a moment to do a labor acknowledgement. And I want to just acknowledge the amount of labor that goes into being an emergency work, right? That this is a job that you are constantly working. There’s not really time for breaks or time to think about your own body. You’re putting your body on the line when you are an emergency frontline worker. And so I just wanna say thank you. Thank you whether you’re doing that job now, you’ve done it in the past, or it’s your job to make sure your people stay safe first, because as we know, we can’t help other people unless we ourselves are safe. And so your first job is to make emergency management accessible to your people. Right, and to honor their bodies and honor their labor.

You may have noticed that I speak a little differently. I think I speak a little slower with a lot more breath. You might have thought for a moment that I’m less smart than you because of the way I think. And I really just want to remind you that this is a result of hundreds and hundreds of years of ableism. It is not your fault. And you can go ahead and notice if you had that thought and let it go and just notice my brilliance. So why do I like working with The Art of Mass Gathering and why this, right? Mass gatherings are an amazing and unlike cities that get built and stay for hundreds of years.

Mass gatherings get built time and time and time again. And so we have the opportunity to think afresh every year we do a mass gathering. Right? We get to think again and again, who are we making the gathering accessible to? Every time there’s a disaster, we get to revisit and think, who are we serving and who can we serve better?

Like I said, accessibility and safety go hand in hand. We want to make sure there is room for everybody and everyone’s devices. Right? We want to make sure people can get around. And we definitely need to make sure people can use the restroom, have enough energy. and build environments that are pro body, that are perhaps a love letter to the body.

So with that, I’m going to invite Heather to start us off and really center us in Nevada. I’ve asked her to answer a few of the following questions: What’s going well? What are the challenges? What seems currently impossible, but very needed? Where does doing the accessibility work make Nevada emergency management stronger? And what about the history of emergency management might get in the way of accessibility? And like I said, I asked her to do just a few of these questions and not go ahead, Heather.

Heather Lafferty: Yeah, of course. Thank you, Jessica. I want to start by saying I always like to focus on the positive. So we’ll start there.

One of the things that’s very exciting about Nevada in particular is we have a lot of buy -in. We have buy -in at the state level from the Division of Emergency Management. We have buy -in from the local level jurisdictions. We have buy -in from our role in frontier partners. We have buy -in at the organizational level and with a lot of our community partners. And we have and then are developing some of the most unique collaborations in partnerships when it comes to accessibility, especially focused around preparedness that you’re gonna see almost anywhere in the country. And so we’re really trying to make that piece foundational. One of the things that was exciting about this last year, since this is kind of focused on mass gathering is Clark County at F1 for the first time had as part of the planning process had an access and functional needs coordinator as part of the plan. So an entire position just devoted to helping in supporting accessibility. And that’s a big step for urban and, you know, for Nevada in particular, you know, just having us at the table from the beginning. So that piece is going very, very well.

You know, one of the things I think that’s I’m gonna focus on when we talk about challenging is I think it sometimes can be very easy to pick on emergency management and emergency managers because, you know, initially when we get the incident command system from the Coast Guard, they got from the Coast Guard, and we translate that into how we prepare and respond to disasters in communities, sometimes things get lost in translation. They don’t always translate well. And making something that was kind of designed more military minded into a community aspect, right?

We, at the foundation level, we lost some of that translation and some of this we’re having to develop brand new. But I really don’t want to focus on the emergency management side and we’re talking about what seems impossible. I want to talk a little bit so you have a kind of a state of the state for disability in Nevada. You know, on the disability side of the streets in Nevada things have a long ways to go and the resources and the funding on our side of the aisle is definitely lacking and took a huge impact with COVID. We lost our deaf center. We have almost a severe gap in lack of resources for interpreters in Northern Nevada in particular. A lot of our rural and frontier communities do not have ADA coordinators.

So even when I do go to the emergency managers and I’m encouraging them in these communities, you know, to really engage, there’s that lack of foundational resources in their community to reach out and engage with from the beginning. So that’s kind of the piece, you know, where we are and what we’re dealing with. But we are making some big steps and, you know, Nevada is starting this process where a lot of our sister states haven’t even kind of jumped into this conversation yet when it comes to access and functional needs integration. So we are very excited about that.

Jessica Wallach: That’s a wonderful introduction and I want to remind people it is always, always a journey. You’re going to get people to the door, figure out how to get them in the door, figure out how to get them through the space. And then there’s going to be another thing. It is never done. Humans always want to be able to connect and participate. And so we’re always going to have a new frontier in accessibility. All right, Heather, over to you now.

Heather Lafferty: Thank you, Jessica. I appreciate that. I was super excited when I was invited to be on this panel because Rat Lady is somewhat infamous in the disability community and so is Mobility Camp. So I’m excited to talk to a real live Burner today and hear about some of these processes and how we have this radical imagination and make things reality in the middle of Wild Nevada. So I kind of want to start talking about what’s important during a mass gathering. And I’m going to, this is a two part question to start. The first question for Rat Lady is what are the first three things people with disabilities learn when they come to Mobility Camp? And can you expand a little bit and talk about some of the creative and practical solutions people have figured out for challenges that they’re going to encounter at Burning Man.

Rat Lady: All right, well, probably the first thing you learn when you get to Burning Man, not just even for the disabled, is that there’s always a workaround. Anytime somebody tells you, well, there’s only two ways to do this, there’s often a third way. And the secret is being creative and thinking about that. Because when you’re a Burning Man, you can’t send out for equipment, you can’t go to Walmart and pick up what you need. You’ve got to make do with what you’ve got. And everybody on the Playa works that way.

There was a bar that was about three stories up and most people would climb a ladder to get up to the bar. Well, obviously for some of us, that’s not an option. So they had a rock climbing harness and they would strap you into the rock climbing harness, haul you up to the bar, you get your drink, you have a good time, and when it’s time to leave, they haul you back down again. Our trailer that we take folks out to the Playa three to four times a day was originally a landscape trailer. And that’s got a flat deck, very low side walls, and the entire tailgate becomes a ramp. So we then modified it by building out of steel, welding it, seats on the sides. We put tie downs in the center so that we can have 12 people and three wheelchairs. And it’s towed with a 1941 Gibson tractor.

The other thing is the terrain. We have a really, this is something that emergency planners really have to think about is what kind of terrains are you planning for?

Because if you have a standard manual wheelchair with narrow tires, small front wheels, those things are not going to work well on either sand or grass. A lot of people think, you know, grass is, oh, grass is great. No, grass is not. And so for those kind of situations, you want a chair that has as big a tires as you can get on it. You want to make them smooth as possible. You want to under inflate them so that they can flatten out and distribute the weight over a larger surface than a narrow wheelchair would do. And those are the kind of things you have to consider. On Playa, we also have to take into account that this dust is conductive.

So if you don’t prepare your mobility equipment ahead of time, if you have electric mobility equipment, it’s going to be dead by Tuesday. Because once that dust gets into your electronics, it’s going to short them out. And then your switches are just welded. They become non -functional. So there’s a lot of little individual tricks. And this is something that the disability community can be a very valuable resource for you. You can go to the disability community and say, what kind of things do we need to know about the terrain that is in our area? What kind of accommodations do we have to make for our equipment before we bring it in? You know, instead of seeing the disabled community as just a community that needs assistance, see that disabled community as a community that can give you assistance. Our camp at Burning Man, every single camper is required to work a minimum of four shifts for our camp.

We have lots of different jobs and especially for disabled individuals that are coming from other countries, that’s sometimes a revelation for them to actually have the same expectations of them that you have of anyone else. And our camp is about 65 to 70 % disabled and 25 to 30 % able-bodied. And so… You know, we have a mix, but everybody has tasks and we provide services not just to the people who were disabled before they got to Burning Man. We also loan out wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, knee scooters for people that weren’t disabled until after they got to Burning Man. And in a disaster situation, you’re going to have people that are newly disabled because of injuries.

And so you’re going to need to have to think about what kind of services and equipment, especially what are they going to need to be functional. And when you’re staffing your disaster. command centers and places where people are gonna need to be directing folks to different services. Look at your disabled community. Heck, they’ll even bring their own comfortable chair.

Heather Lafferty: No, absolutely. And I really like that point because when I’m coordinating with my rural and frontier emergency managers and we’re talking about shelters and accessibility in the terrain, a lot of the conversations we have, I learned from festivals and the accessibility features and the things we’ve tried in terrains in different locations, you know, that I’ve learned, you know, from places like Mobility Camp.

So there’s so much to learn, you know, and collaborate on. And it especially works well when, you know, we’re at the table and we were able to have those conversations and, you know, the planning at the pre -stage. So at this point, I’m going to turn it over to Jessica for the next question. Jessica, all you. Accessibility is always worth the wait. Yes.

Jessica: Oh, I love that. I think that’s a really, really important thing. The world moves really, really, really fast. And we want to build them, be ready. And we have lots of deadlines and, you know, build at the speed of accessibility. I want to go back to this question of how do we plan? How do we prepare? What do people need to know things we need to know about how we prepare, what information, how often do we give information? Where do we give information? Quickly. Even though I just said accessibility is worth the, you know, worth waiting for. So go ahead.

Rat Lady: I think it’s important to get the word out, one of the things we do for Burning Man is we give people a lot of information ahead of time as to, look, this is a hostile environment to your chair. This is a place with no support things as far as infrastructure other than medical, fire, and law enforcement. You have to bring in absolutely everything you have to take out absolutely everything. And that’s, you know, something that it’s important for people to know ahead of time, what’s expected. One of the things that I think is important for emergency services to know is both an electric wheelchair or mobility scooter and a CPAP machine require 55 amp hours per night to charge. So that’s a big electrical requirement. And without those, people, one, need to breathe while they sleep, and two, need to be mobile. So that’s a really important thing.

Now, one of the things we learned last year at Burning Man with our water, and mind you folks, ignore what the news said, it was just mud. The only people that had issues were the people who didn’t pay attention to what everyone else was telling them, that it’s very simple. You don’t move until it dries out. And…

That was something that everybody told people ahead of time. And really, the only people that had real problems were the people who ignored that and tried to leave. But a lot of people were concerned. How do I let my work know that I’m going to be a few days late? And one of the things they did that was very helpful was they brought in Wi -Fi trailers and put them in the plazas, some of the central locations so that people could go and hook up their computer or hook up their cell phone and let their work know, hey, I’m gonna be a few days late. But we’re all fine. We’re not dying of Ebola. We’re not starving to death. The community was the best resource there. That we all took care of each other. We all understood the challenges. We had two electric wheelchair users who were tent campers. And obviously when the ground’s wet, that’s not sustainable. So one of them ended up going and camping the rest of the event in our kitchen area because it had a tarped floor and was much drier. And the other one was invited by their neighbor to move into their 40 foot toy hauler. So your community is your biggest resource if you give them the skills and the information to prepare ahead of time.

Heather Lafferty: Yeah, absolutely. And I think kind of to your point, sometimes I feel like people are afraid to put that message out to the disability community, that frank, honest conversation of our facility doesn’t have this capability or we don’t have this certain aspect when it comes to accessibility. But knowing that beforehand and really having that honest, frank messaging helps the disability community engage with you better because we can come and have that understanding beforehand.

That’s super important. And I’m really glad, Ratlady, that we had, I know in general Burning Man happens on federal land and in coordination with federal partners, but as a state, part of the state, it’s exciting to have some of these conversations. My last question was kind of for Jessica. Jessica, when we talk about the standard model for emergency management with regards to people with disabilities and that shelter in place [areas of refuge] piece, you know, what do you think about are the current shelter in place models that we’ve seen historically and are there any challenges or alternatives you’ve seen or kind of what’s your thoughts on this, on that?

Jessica from the future: The beep beep beep, this is Jessica breaking in. I noticed that we use the term shelter in place when we meant areas of refuge. Let me explain. Shelter in place is when everyone needs to stay put to stay safe. Whereas areas of refuge is during an evacuation, designated for people with functional needs who cannot leave quickly on their own: [the idea is to] stay until emergency workers can come and get them out. Beep beep beep beep.

Jessica: So I remember being 20 and being a secretary in a federal building in Baltimore City and there being a fire alarm exercise, right? And there was a place for people with disabilities to stay. And every time I hear, you know, when I think about this, I think of that building.

And then my mind goes to 9/11 and the people who sheltered in place as they were told to do perished and the people who ignored it and were self -reliant got out. I am not a big proponent of sheltering place [areas of refuge] as a rule. I think it was a really great model.

For the time much better than leaving somebody in a room, right? It has its place But I think technology has grown greatly since the early 90s when this was really Broad into view and started to be used But I think now we have a lot of information coming in
and ability to get information out. So I’ve been thinking about this idea that if we have information ahead of time, we could get information out ahead. So out of festival, people with disabilities could register and let the coordinator, right? Every festival should have an accessibility coordinator, let the accessibility coordinator know they’re in the space. And then if we think we might shut down because of weather, right? We could send a message to everybody saying, we are considering shutting down. We do not know yet, but we wanna give you the opportunity to choose to leave ahead of time. And then my second thought is that we could actually have an optional mapping program where people could tell give their location for a big mass gathering and um and help people get out we have real -time information now that we could be using, Now I know at some point with many mass gatherings When an emergency happens we close down cell phones communication so that it can only be used to communicate among the managers. But there’s a window I think, where we could be communicating and help people get out who need the most help, who have the functional needs. And then we could help other people. So kind of flipping the narrative to get everybody out safely.

And now, open this idea up to the room. Well, first I want to hear, Heather, your thoughts on this, and then we’re going to open this up. And I’d love to hear everybody’s thoughts on this. This is why I’m excited to be in the room, because I haven’t gotten to talk to a lot of people about this idea. But I know it’s not just me who would like to develop alternatives. This, you know, college students who live in dorms live in fear of the emergency because they are told to wait and they want other options, right? There’s lots of places this system is not working. So Heather, what say you?

Heather Lafferty: Oh yeah, I mean, I completely agree. I mean, obviously when it comes to shelter in place, there’s a bunch of different scenarios and kind of reasons that guidance is being given.

One of the things we have seen historically though at mass gatherings or in communal spaces like our offices, our schools is when that guidance is given or sometimes even when evacuation guidance is given, you’ll see people with disabilities left behind. They’ll be isolated, forgot about, they’ll not get the message. So this is a super important conversation to have.

And then I will definitely open it up to the room if and let you take it over, Jessica.

Jessica: Really nice. So, who has a thought? Who? What’s some real experience here, what do you think will work? Was I just crazy that think we could do something ahead of time build in that moment, that window?

Audience member 1: A couple examples, you know haven’t worked at the city of Henderson and also at University of Nevada Las Vegas some of the issues that you brought up. We saw in our emergency planning, particularly those with access and functional needs historically had not been included in the planning process. And more importantly, they hadn’t been included in the exercises or the drills that we had done. And when we carried out those drills with the students or with the staff at the city, it became readily apparent that there were gaps. And… What we were told from some of the staff members is that they had already thought about it in their own little group. Hey, you know, they knew that they had a person on staff that had an access and functional need and would need assistance in evacuating. And they had already thought through it and they knew how they were going to help each other. And but us as the emergency managers or the people that were doing the actual planning had no visibility on those internal connections that had already been made and hadn’t really thought about it until we saw in practice, hey, they were already doing this. And then that became part of our process. So I think that the more that we practice, it’s one thing to include everybody in planning, but including them in practice and seeing how it works and how we can get better at it and learn from it, that’s probably the most important thing that I’ve seen is making sure that everybody’s included in those practice drills so that you can – In the Coast Guard, we had a saying, rising tide lifts all boats. And that’s where kind of where I’m coming from is that everybody should be included in the planning. Everyone should be included in the actual practicing so that they understand the process and we’ll all get better because of it.

Jessica: That’s great. So it sounds like people are developing their own plans outside of the standard and are ready to implement. And they need practice, right? Like there’s all these step chairs that go down steps, but if you don’t open them up and touch them and put someone in them, you’re not gonna know how to use, right?

So practice is key. Communication is a key for emergency managers to know the people in the communities. What else do people think?

Audience member 2: Yeah, hey all this is Emily Dwyer. So in Florida, basically since 2015 consistently we’ve either been hit by a category three or five hurricane or been threatened by getting hit by them. So we’ve been very well exercised in response recovery for the last almost decade now, which is crazy.

But something that we’ve been seeing a consistent improvement in is our access and functional needs with sheltering. So with our health and human services branch, when we’re activated in EOC, we actually have an access and functional needs coordinator who is involved in all of our plans, make sure that they’re aware in all of our sheltering operations. Every county almost now has a shelter that is accessible, which is great. It’s hard in our rural counties. We have 67 counties. So, not all of them, but they’ll have mutual aid agreements to allow people to be able to meet the needs where there’s a gap. But to be honest, something that I’ve observed is not necessarily a lack of planning and availability that our counties and local governments have been offering. It’s those who need the help aren’t necessarily asking for it or making themselves available for it. So the example for that is one of our primary ways of being able to identify who needs the help.

During our case who might need to be called as we ask everyone to go on to our special needs registry and not everybody actually goes on and registers themselves. So we have a gap and we might not be able to identify everybody at the time who might need it until disaster occurs. A couple of days later, we have comms back on and we’re getting calls to our state UCC saying, hey, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, they’re trapped in their house and they can’t get out because they don’t have the power. They can’t leave. What do we do? So.

I’d like to hear from the room where tips from the experts on the panel of many potential solutions to be able to fill that gap.

Rat Lady: One of the things that I think comes into play there is for people that are newly disabled or gradually disabled, it’s really difficult for them to admit to themselves that they have a need for services.

You know, we run into this when people are like, oh, you know, I don’t want to use a wheelchair. That’s, and it’s like, okay, think of these as power tools to make your life more functional. And, and I’m not sure how you can force somebody to recognize their needs. I think that’s something that they just have to come to on their own at some point. I think it goes back to information in and information out. Right.

Jessica: I think if people aren’t registering, they might not know about it. Right. Like I certainly didn’t know about it in my own county until I started doing this work, right? And I live in Fairfax County, the home of emergency management, right? And so you need to think about what information you’re putting out and how much information, right? We need to know what services you can provide us and why we would wanna tell you and you need to do it in every way you can, like going to festivals and being very public about what how people prepare for disasters and then knowing exactly what does it mean to have an accessible shelter, right? For someone to decide to leave their house, they need to know what resources they are going to. And they need to make this cost benefit decision. Will my needs be met better there or here? And so if I don’t know that I can use the bathroom, if the shelter isn’t an elementary school, I’m going to think all the toilets are short, right? That there aren’t going to be toilets that meet my needs. And if there are not toilets, I cannot be there for more than 45 minutes. People with disabilities plan their whole lives around being able to go to the bathroom. And so talking specifically about what toilets are available, very important.

Right? So you can’t just say shelter accessible. I need to know that my needs are going to be met. So you need to give real specific information so that people then can sign up. And I think the other thing is going back to building relationships. Right? I don’t want to sign up for something that I think people are gonna come in and tell me what to do if the trust isn’t there. So building that key relationship, which happens in the plan, like planning it is a great way to build that relationship, drills and asking for feedback and remembering that we are a resource. We deal with emergencies most days of our lives. Right? In a way that the non -disabled just don’t. So bringing us in as experts and not just bringing us in because you think we need help, right? But that we are partners in keeping our communities safe.

Rat Lady: A perfect example of this is many times when you’re laying out a communication center or a distribution center for mass casualties or mass events, disasters, people trench in their cables. And that’s fine for keeping people from tripping over their cables. But that creates then a very significant problem for especially manual wheelchair users because once the dirt has been disturbed in a broad strip, it’s not getting packed down hard enough.

And when you hit that softer dirt with your little tiny front wheels on your wheelchair, they immediately sink in, your chair stops, and you go forward. At our camp, if we have cables, we make a trench just the width of the cable and only the depth that that cable needs to be that is at ground level so that that doesn’t create then a hazard for wheelchair users. And that’s something you would never know unless you were asking somebody who was familiar with the terrain and familiar with, you know, what kind of an issue this could be. A lot of places use those yellow and black little platforms to go over their cables. And that’s great. But if you’re in a mobility scooter that has a low deck to the ground, that’s just as much a hazard for you as it would be if it were square block because you don’t have the ground clearance to go over top of that.

Jessica: There are, oh, go ahead.

Audience member 3: Oh, sorry. I was just going to add, I think one thing to consider is the public messaging in advance of an event. Giving as much clear instruction on what to do in case there is an emergency is really important. So that public information and warning function, whether it happens at the local government level or the facility level, is super important to be very clear and give instructions. And you know, I’m Part of what I’m doing here today is advocating for kids. And so think about kids may not normally be at your facility on a day -to -day basis, but they might be there for a school field trip, or they might be there for some science fair or special event or something where there’s a mix of parents and kids. And so think about what shelter in place might be like for a child who can’t stand being in confined spaces for long or has some sort of a disability where being in a small confined space would be extraordinarily difficult for a period of time. And so one of the things that I’m thinking about is the UNLV shooting where people were sheltering place for five, six, seven hours while each building on the UNLV campus was cleared as a result of that active shooter. Somebody with autism may not do very well for six or seven hours in a confined space hiding from a potential active shooter. So think about what instructions that you would need to give to help people with varying issues have a better experience while they’re keeping safe. The other thing that we work on within RAPAM is reunification and the challenges of reunification.

It may be an event where parents and children are together at the event or somehow separated that could be at a church function even where kids are in one place and parents are in another place. What instructions are you giving to help reunify and reunite parents with their children while this event is going on and after in the recovery phase? So those are just some considerations related to children that I wanted to point out and things that if they’re not already incorporated into your planning might be good to look at.

The other thought I had is when my daughter was in kindergarten, she went to UNLV. They had a daycare and a kindergarten on campus. And I can guarantee you that that was not incorporated into the emergency operations plan for the university at the time. Of course, this is going 30 years ago, and things may have improved. But consider the mix of folks and the mix of abilities of the people that are visiting your facility, your campus, your building at any given time.

Jessica: Thank you. That was great. And I just want to remind us that people with disabilities and kids are three times more likely to be in harm’s way during a disaster than anybody else. And so thinking about kids and disabilities together makes a lot of sense and the more an emergency planning team can know, someone already said this, about the event, the more they are embedded, the more they’re going to be able to respond. And so the more you can be a part of your festivals and be a resource for these sunny day events, the more you’re going to know ahead of time when those sunny day events turn. So, and the more we know people with autism, people with communication difficulties, people, anybody, the more we’re going to be able to be mutual aid with them and partner with them in these times of emergency.

Available on
Apple Podcasts Logo Spotify Logo


View the “Planning Guide for Making Temporary Events Accessible to People with Disabilities” from the ADA National Network. You’ll have the option to download as a PDF, including with large print.

Since 2017, Majestic Collaborations has conducted site tours & assessments of the safety, accessibility, and sustainability of events and venues. Led by Jessica Wallach, we’ve assembled a free DIY guide to evaluate user experience of your event or space from the perspective of accessibility. Get the accessibility guide, or contact us about working together! Grants are often available for free festival assessments or Art of Mass Gathering events, thanks to our partners at Performing Arts Readiness.

Festival Accessibility Checklist

Laura Grunfeld, the founder of Everyone’s Invited, has spoken at the Art of Mass Gatherings and gave us permission to share her accessibility checklist for festival producers. Everyone’s Invited specializes in helping outdoor events and festivals be accessible to people with disabilities. Laura and her team have worked with The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Bonnaroo, Governors Ball, Outside Lands, Electric Forest, TomorrowWorld, Firefly and many more.

The Four Pillars of Resilient Gatherings

The foundation of the Art of Mass Gatherings is a unique four pillar framework: safety, sustainability, accessibility, and community engagement. These factors are critical for the safety and success of public gatherings of all kinds, from festivals to political demonstrations to disaster response sites.

What’s at stake? Listen to Sonya’s experience simply trying to ensure she and other students with disabilities have accommodations for emergency evacuations, including navigating across various campus offices, lapses in communication, and being constantly redirected to different people, all while experiencing the uncertainty and fear of not knowing when the alarms go off whether it might be because of a real emergency. Keep an ear out for protocol issues you can check in your own safety plans: the problems with area of refuge, importance of clear and direct communications, and unacceptability of putting the responsibility for safety planning on your audience members.

Artist Credits

The artwork used in the podcast thumbnail was created for us by illustrator, graphic novelist & concept artist Dion Harris. It represents the intersectional roles that professionals trained in the Art of Mass Gatherings might play in their communities: from performers to event producers to teachers to emergency response professionals.

The intro & outro music is written & performed by podcast host Matthew Kowal with his band The Reals. Listen to the original song, "Fairly Natural."

This podcast is brought to you by