University of North Dakota

02/18/2020 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 02/18/2020 16:49

Disaster mitigator for people with disabilities

UND alum provides hope to those whom disasters hit especially hard

Robert Ferguson, FEMA Portfolio Disability Integration Specialist, speaks with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Peter T. Gaynor, and FEMA Region 6 Regional Administrator Tony Robinson through FEMA Sign Language Interpreter, Scott Wallace during Mr. Gaynor's visit to the Texas Recovery Office in Austin. The TRO External Affairs Officer and TRO Director are also pictured. Photo courtesy of FEMA photographer Julie Joseph.

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which slammed coastal Texas in late August 2017 and displaced thousands of residents, Robert Ferguson was dispatched to a local shelter. It was crowded and disorienting.

By that time, Ferguson had been with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for less than six months. But he spotted a man, dazed and distracted amid the hordes of people trying to process the fact that their lives had been uprooted. There was something about the man; Ferguson felt he could truly connect with him, help him.

Ferguson, who was then serving as FEMA's disability integration advisor, helped the man move from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Austin, Texas, where the man then lived in a hotel for some time. A month or so later, Ferguson flew to Puerto Rico to help the recovery efforts after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. He lost connection with the man in Texas.

But almost a year later, the man reached out to Ferguson on LinkedIn, a professional online network, to let him know he now had a home and a business.

'He thanked me and said that I had given him hope to pursue his dreams,' Ferguson said. 'That's a story that I always keep with me, in my heart.'

Ferguson, who in 2003 graduated from the University of North Dakota with degrees in political science and geographic information science, spoke to UND Today through an interpreter, who vocalized his sign-language. Ferguson is deaf; he was born this way to deaf parents in Colorado. He has two deaf sons of his own - a 14-year-old and a 12-year-old.

That family heritage clearly shaped his career, which is focused on helping other people with disabilities in some of the hardest, most unthinkable moments of despair that natural disasters create. But Ferguson wouldn't call his condition a disability.

Puerto Rico Sign Language interpreter Lucas Soto speaks with Robert Ferguson as they prepare to deliver Durable Medical Equipment (wheelchair) to a person with disabilities at their residence in the remote mountains of Jayuya, Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy of Lymari Rios

'I'd have to say that I never looked at myself as disabled,' he said. 'I'm a human being, first and foremost. Everyone on the planet has some sort of disability.'

A calling

Yet, there are challenges. At UND, Ferguson credits his success in part to the support he received from professors and UND's Disability Services. The school provided an interpreter and a note taker as he pursued his passion for geography and politics.

But then, there are the daily obstacles of navigating a world - and professional spaces - primarily designed for hearing people.

'I have to fight to move along the same path that others will just easily walk,' he said. 'I have to repeat myself, and I have to educate myself and educate my colleagues on the fact that I can do the same things.'

Ferguson has a lot of patience and a lot of resilience. He also has a well of empathy and ardor for his work with FEMA, which followed jobs with the North Dakota School for the Deaf and the Texas School for the Deaf.

'I feel like I have found my true calling,' he said.

Having been deployed to four different natural disasters - the 2017 floods in northwest Arkansas, Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Michael in Georgia in 2019 - Ferguson has helped survivors with hearing difficulties access the services they needed.

From working with TV stations in order to relay information to providing hearing devices and coordinating medical help, Ferguson has made a difference for others as much as they have impacted his outlook on life. Especially so in Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Maria united survivors and respondents of disparate cultures, languages and backgrounds.

'I was able to see how strong these individuals were and how they were able to get through it,' Ferguson said. 'I felt such empathy and such compassion working with the people in Puerto Rico. During that time, I felt fully connected to them.'

Making connections, offering guidance

Today, Ferguson is a portfolio disability integration specialist with FEMA Region VI, which covers the states of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arkansas in addition to nearly 70 federally recognized tribal nations. Situated in Austin, Ferguson facilitates the communication and cooperation between various federal agencies, organizations and people impacted by natural disasters.

But every time nature unleashes its wrath, there are unique difficulties. 'Every disaster is different,' Ferguson said. 'You have to work with different agencies. In my job, when I arrive to the disaster site and I am able to really see how the disaster has impacted different lives, it really hits me hard. You never know what you're going to see.'

Still, it seems like Ferguson would not have it any other way. He hopes his career will unfold with FEMA across decades to come. After all, helping - and inspiring - people to overcome adversities is his specialty.

As a UND alum, current master's student at Texas A&M University, FEMA portfolio disability integration specialist and a father of two teenagers, Ferguson said, 'People with disabilities and people with no physical disabilities - anyone can accomplish anything with the proper guidance.'