Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

Emergency Communication and the Deaf

November 9th, 2011

In all of the years of researching and taking courses / training in crisis communications – one group has not been mentioned as much as others.  This audience group is the deaf community.  How do we go about in making sure that this audience group gets the same information about an emergency or crisis like all of our other audiences?

~ Karen Freberg, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor in Strategic Communication at the University of Louisville

Does the Deaf Community need sign language interpretation for emergencies?

Does the Deaf Community Need ASL Interpretation for Emergencies?

Long before today’s nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) advocated for improved accessibility to emergency warnings with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In response, FEMA made a video with American Sign Language explaining that old technology prevents full communication access to the Deaf and asking Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing people not to worry because, “this is only a test.”

Exclusive design?

However this is not “just” any old test. According to the Chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, “This test is vital to ensuring that the EAS, the primary alerting system available to the American public, works as designed” (emphasis added).  Chief James A Barnett explains, “the EAS is a media communications-based alerting system designed to transmit emergency alerts and warnings to the American public . . . providing vital information in crises, and the system is designed to work when nothing else does” (emphasis added).

Only One Way of Communicating?

My career as an American Sign Language/English interpreter, along with graduate study in the field of Communication, gives me reason to wonder at the insistence on a one-size-fits-all method of communicating emergency warnings.  Of course this makes sense from the topmost levels of the communication hierarchy, but at some point the local takes over.  Is text enough?  Are captions (assuming they are even provided!) adequate for catching the attention of a Deaf person in order to warn them of an impending crisis? Why not supplement outdated technology with live interpretation?

Getting Real – or Postponing It?

The national Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) has a Working Group developing a Standard Practice Paper on Emergency Interpreting. While the draft is under administrative review, efforts to properly train interpreters for integration into emergency planning and response were begun at a Florida State RID workshop in October. Meanwhile, information to guide Emergency Managers and First Responders in working with Sign Language Interpreter strike teams was presented in September at Getting Real II: Promising Practices in Inclusive Emergency Management for the Whole Community.

Deaf Tweet-In to Teach about communication access!

“One final note, for the communities that are deaf or hard of hearing, there is a special evaluation of how emergency alert information is transmitted to these communities. Emergency agencies are being encouraged to use the hashtag #demx during this EAS test so that social media can be evaluated for its effectiveness in reaching populations which may not hear the emergency alert.” ~ Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency

#demx introduced a few days before the test

#demx introduced a few days before the test

Why do Deaf Americans have to keep waiting for the majority to decide to protect everyone?  Why are Deaf Americans being told – yet again – to wait until … when?  The obvious, logical, and easy solution to inadequate captioning technology is to have sign language interpreters on contract for emergency interpreting. Despite years of advocacy from Deaf individuals within their communities and organizations, as well as at the institutional level by the National Association of the Deaf, provision of communication access is apparently such a low priority that the first national test is going to happen without any backup plan.

What are Deaf people to do if (when) there is a real emergency?

Where’s the ASL?

But maybe I assume sign language interpretation is the answer.  I designed an action research study to learn what the Deaf community needs.  The lead time has been extremely short, and the Deaf community may be experiencing “EAS fatigue”, however some traction on Twitter from social media users in emergency management and a loose network of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals suggests that a useful conversation may occur today about creating a warning system that effectively includes this neglected population.

Please read the Guidelines for Tweeting to #demx and follow @Deaf_Emergency, @stephjoke and @XpressiveHandz

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