Changing the nature of special needs: Utilizing a function-based approach to special needs planning

When preparing for emergencies, planners should be cognizant of individuals with "special needs." Analyzing various governmental agencies’ definitions demonstrates a lack of general consensus on who should be considered “special needs,” thus making it difficult to accommodate these individuals in current emergency plans. Compounding this problem is the “list of lists” approach currently used by many emergency planners. This approach mistakenly seeks to define “special needs” by compiling lists of disabilities, rather than focusing on the functional limitations of individuals in a particular emergency. The result of the “list of lists” approach is that some individuals are counted more than once and some are not counted at all.

This paper advocates the adoption of a uniform, functional based approach, which is supported by disability advocates and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This functional approach focuses on factors that limit a person’s ability to care for himself or herself during an emergency. This methodology provides for those who have special needs, before, during, and after an emergency, by assessing their functional limitations based on five broad categories, namely: maintaining independence, communication, transportation, supervision, and medical care. After reviewing the benefits of adopting a functional approach, and examining some preliminary considerations for functional based planning, this paper advocates the adoption of a function based approach to special needs planning to best serve the needs of these individuals during an emergency.

This article appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of the Journal of Emergency Management.

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