This post is part of the series 14 Questions, featuring interviews with disability advocates regarding their work and insights into the Complex Rehab Technology (CRT) industry. In our latest post, Numotion Director of Advocacy Strategy, Justin Richardson interviews Vance Taylor, Chief of the Office of Access and Functional Needs at the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services.
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Richardson: You have a needs specific role with the state of California. Please tell us about your work. When was this position created and why?
 
Taylor: Regardless of whether there is a fire, flood, or earthquake, the same population consistently experiences greater loss of life and suffering – individuals with access and functional needs. To get in front of this issue, California’s Governor established the Office of Access and Functional Needs (OAFN) in 2008 and placed it within his Office of Emergency Services. My role as Chief of the Office is to identify the needs people with access or functional needs have before, during, or after disasters and to integrate them throughout every facet of the state’s emergency management process.
 
Richardson: Is this role specific to California or do other states have similar roles? Are there similar positions on the federal level?
 
Taylor: A small handful of other states seek to address this issue on a broad level, but none of them have a dedicated office directly within the Governor’s purview with a chief serving at a senior executive level. On the federal level, FEMA has the office of Disability Integration and Coordination, which exists to address issues of equality and inclusion in federal policy.
 
Richardson: As a wheelchair user yourself, I imagine you have an interesting perspective when it comes to disaster response and preparedness. Do your thoughts and opinions concerning how to approach disaster readiness differ from your able-bodied colleagues or have they been mostly in line with your own?
 
Taylor: My disability provides me with a broader perspective on the issues of inclusion and integration. My colleagues are dedicated to integrating the emergency management system, but they come at it having lived a different experience. It’s in bringing everyone together, individuals from every life experience, that we advance this mission. It takes all of us working collaboratively to meet the needs of the whole community.
 
Richardson: Have you personally felt the effects of a natural disaster? If so, how did that experience contribute to how you approach your current role?
 
Taylor: While visiting my girlfriend (now my wife) on a trip to New York in 2003, there was a terrible blizzard. Manhattan was shutdown and I was unable to leave the apartment for 5 days. Though my girlfriend could leave to get us food, I couldn’t help but think about people without support networks. I was happy to have so much time with my girlfriend, but the reality was it was a very dangerous situation. Eventually the city got up and running again, and while I was largely unaffected, there were some reported fatalities of people who were not so fortunate. It was a sobering reminder of how easily things could have gone the other way. I think about that experience a lot; it’s never left me.
 
Richardson: You recently participated in a FEMA discussion that gained quite a bit of attention. In that presentation, one of your more profound comments indicated that 70% of those who died in Hurricane Katrina had an “access or functional need.” What defines an “access or functional need?” 
 
Taylor: “Access and Functional Needs” refers to individuals who have developmental or intellectual or physical disabilities, chronic conditions, injuries, limited English proficiency or are non-English speaking. It refers to women who are in the late stages of pregnancy, older adults, children, people living in institutionalized settings, or those who are low income, homeless, or transportation disadvantaged, including, but not limited to, those who are dependent on public transit.
 
Richardson: Why do you think so many who lost their lives in that particular disaster could be included in those who had “access or functional needs?” Do you think the disproportionate numbers from hurricane Katrina are representative of most disasters?
 
Taylor: A large part of why so many people with access or functional needs perished in Hurricane Katrina was the overall lack of integration within the way the local, state, and federal emergency management agencies had planned for, prepared for, and responded to emergencies. They weren’t accounting for access and functional needs during everyday situations – let alone major catastrophes.
 
Richardson: If ordered or encouraged to evacuate, I imagine many with mobility needs would be hesitant to do so over fears of shelter/housing inaccessibility or access to basic needs such as the accessible showers mentioned in your FEMA presentation. What advice would you give to those who consider staying in place during a disaster based on those fears?
 
Taylor: People with access and functional needs have every reason in the world to not want to evacuate before or during emergencies. It’s inconvenient, transportation can be limited, care attendant needs have to be coordinated, concerns exist about accessibility at shelters, etc. However, the reality is that, above all others, people with access and functional needs MUST evacuate right away. We do not have the same luxury of waiting that our non-disabled counterparts do. If we pass on an opportunity to evacuate, we may not get a second chance. It’s not fair, but it’s our reality and we must be prepared to act.
 
Richardson: Specific to those with mobility/complex rehab technology needs, what types of disasters have proven to be most detrimental to this population?
 
Taylor: The most detrimental disasters are what we refer to as “no-notice events,” such as earthquakes, or in some instances, incredibly rapid moving wildfires. Typically, people have time to plan and respond for floods or other weather-related events because we have advance notice brought to us by a 10-day forecast or Doppler radar. People with access and functional needs should evacuate plans in place and ready to go – it’s the best way to stay alive and to reduce suffering during disasters.
 
Richardson: Many with disabilities would be comforted to know that the Chief of the State of California’s Office of Access and Functional Needs is also living with disability – a great example of “nothing about us without us.” What do you think could be done to achieve the goal of getting more people living with disabilities out into the workforce, especially in areas that affect the everyday lives of others in their own situations?
 
Taylor: One way to empower people with disabilities to enter the workforce is to show them examples of people with disabilities who are gainfully employed. The power of example cannot be overstated. When I was young, people used to tell me I could be anything, a successful businessman, a husband, and a father. But the reality was that I didn’t see anybody “like me” doing any of those things, which made me question whether those types of goals were actually attainable. Today, I get to tell people with disabilities that they can achieve their educational, professional, and personal goals – I get to serve as the example for them that I never had.
 
Richardson: Do disaster recovery agencies proactively partner with specialty providers (CRT providers for example) ahead of natural disasters so that they will be prepared to assist once a disaster occurs? If not, why?
 
Taylor: Disaster recovery agencies partner with specialty providers, but only on a limited basis. The fact is, those partnerships need to expand in scope and scale. Partnerships need to be done well in advance of disasters if we are to meet the needs of our mutual constituencies, which is why I have been delighted by Numotion CEO, Mike Swinford and his team for working collaboratively with my office. His leadership exploring ways to partner on the emergency management front is helping ensure Numotion’s customers have their needs met before, during, and after disasters. 
 
Richardson: People with disabilities often feel segregated when “special situations arise.” For example, those using wheelchairs may be corralled into a specific area for efficiency or processing reasons. Even when efficiency and organization are key, are steps taken during/following natural disasters to ensure equality and prevent segregation?
 
Taylor: I am extremely proud to say that California is firmly committed to supporting integrated sheltering environments. We do not segregate based on disability, race, ethnicity, religion, or any other basis. Our shelters, emergency services, and disaster response programs are accessible for the state’s whole community. This is a practice I sincerely hope every other state will follow.
 
Richardson: Technology has made it easier to communicate both with the masses and with specific groups within more broad populations. Are those with access or functional needs typically willing to self-identify in order to receive proactive communication in advance of a disaster or is your team forced to attempt to reach those individuals with relevant information after the fact?
 
Taylor: In my experience, “registries” where we ask people to self-identify seldom work in and of themselves. However, there are ways to enhance our emergency alert and notification processes to be more efficient and far-reaching. Through an initiative I refer to as “Integration 2.0,” we are working collaboratively with our partners in Silicon Valley to repurpose artificial intelligence and machine learning in order to develop and create better communication tools. These tools will help the community as a whole and will specifically be designed and integrated to meet the communication needs of people with disabilities and individuals with access or functional needs.
 
Richardson: How long have you used a wheelchair and what are your thoughts on the current state of complex rehab technology, specifically access to this equipment and the advancement of technology?
 
Taylor: I’ve used a wheelchair since the 6th grade. In that time, the state of complex rehab technology has come a long way. My wheelchair today can do things I only dreamed of as a child. Looking forward, it is clear that the technological breakthroughs and advancements of tomorrow will move us even further, which makes me beyond excited for what my future holds in terms of the technology I use to live a fuller, independent, healthier life. It will be essential to ensure that all people with disabilities, regardless of their financial situation, will have access to these lifesaving and life changing technologies.
 
Richardson: What would be the best way for our California customers to learn more about the Office of Access and Functional Needs and its resources? For those outside of California, what would be the best way to learn more about resources available on the federal level or in their particular states?
 
Taylor: Everyone, not just Californians, can learn about the Office of Access and Functional Needs by viewing our website, reading the materials we develop, and exploring our information products. Sign up for our newsletter by emailing OAFN@CalOES.ca.gov or reach out to me or my staff. We’re here to help. 

Click here to read more about Vance in our Customer Stories section. 
Justin Richardson, Executive Director of the Numotion Foundation

Author

Justin Richardson, Executive Director of the Numotion Foundation

Justin Richardson is a manual wheelchair user of sixteen years and twelve-year veteran of the seating and mobility industry. He has deep perspective and experience as a former ATP, operations manager, communications and customer experience leader. Currently Justin also serves as the Executive Director of the Numotion Foundation and sits on the Board of the North Carolina Spinal Cord Injury Association.