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Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst: Ensuring Nebraskans with Disabilities Are Protected in the Next Emergency

Last year, Disability Rights Nebraska published a report, “Second Class During the Pandemic” on the shameful way people with disabilities were left behind in the COVID-19 response.

There was bad news as well as good news from the pandemic that we all need to think about to ensure the next emergency -  whether it turns out to be a flood, fire, tornado, or pandemic  - does not leave people with disabilities behind again.

The report detailed how the state Department of Health and Human Services paid $45 million on TestNebraska, which operated from April 2020 to July 2021. To use the program, people had to have the ability to access a computer or smart phone to fill out screening questions and then had to have the ability to get to a drive-through testing site. Many Nebraskans, including those with disabilities, lack either computer access or private transportation, so they were simply left out of the free virus testing program entirely. Despite repeated calls for a modification for a telephone screening option and in-home testing such as other states provided, Nebraska simply never made the changes needed to serve everyone.

But there was good news, too: when vaccines arrived, the distribution was done by local county public health departments, with no aid or oversight by the state. And the vaccine rollout went very well. We interviewed public health directors who revealed it was a complete surprise to find out they were responsible for vaccinations. One director told us: “We had no advance warning. If the state intended to have us be the primary vehicle, you’d think they would have included us in the planning…well, if there WAS a plan.”

Despite being handed a complex task with no head’s up, the public health departments across the prairies did a tremendous job. Many local health directors proactively reached out to group homes, nursing homes and other congregate facilities with vulnerable Nebraskans living in them to arrange for vaccinations. The counties actively created in-home vaccination options for people with disabilities who live independently but could not easily or safely to go a clinic. The efforts of public health departments to create a vaccination program that was accessible to everyone was a model of planning that state officials should learn from. We commend the public health districts and the Nebraska Association of Local Health Directors for their leadership.

There’s yet more good news: our state senators read the “Second Class During the Pandemic” report with concern. Senator Jen Day of District 49 introduced LB 1104. The bill would have required the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency (“NEMA”) to include people with disabilities in future planning for emergency response. While the bill was received very warmly at the hearing and was folded into a priority bill, LB 512, the session ran out of time before it could advance. That’s not the end of the story, though—NEMA voluntarily reached out to us and invited our participation in their strategic planning. For the next few months, Disability Rights Nebraska will be collaborating with NEMA to suggest ways to plan ahead and make sure people with disabilities aren’t left behind again.

We hope for the best—but we also plan for the worst. By building relationships with local health departments and emergency planning agencies, we envision a future where the shameful lack of accessibility shown by state officials will never happen again. Nebraskans with disabilities have faced and overcome immense obstacles in the COVID-19 pandemic, and we will continue working every day to guarantee equitable access to life saving programs and services in the future.

Amy Miller is a staff attorney with Disability Rights Nebraska where she works on a number of issues including monitoring conditions at facilities where people with disabilities reside and voting rights.