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Category Archives: Deaf during Disaster

Emergency Management Systems Neglect Deaf Citizens

During an emergency, it is important that people know what is happening, when it will happen, and what steps they are expected to take. Traditional information channels leave dangerous gaps in communication— at the first signs of crisis, d/Deaf and hard of hearing people are forgotten.

While America continues to reel in the wake of several large scale emergencies, there is room in the national discussion to address the inadequate crisis services that are available to the d/Deaf community. In times of disaster or crisis, most people turn to a trusted news sources for updates. But, for individuals who are d/Deaf/Hard of hearing, emergency information is delivered infrequently, late, and is often missing critical information — if this news reaches them at all.



Closed captioned television is already hit or miss, commonly plagued with spelling and contextual errors; but during emergency broadcasts, small inaccuracies can put lives at risk. Furthermore, less people now have televisions in their homes as the internet takes over. This means that more people getting their news online, where captioning for emergency announcements is usually not even provided.

We have seen time and again situations where ASL interpreters work a press conference in effort to communicate crucial updates to the Deaf community, only to be left off screen during the broadcast. We have also seen unfortunate situations where the “interpreters” offered to Deaf residents are exceptionally unqualified, which jeopardizes the health and safety of an entire group of people. Additionally, some hearing interpreters utilize a style of ASL that might be inaccessible to people with a different educational background. To reach the highest number of people, it is advised to seek the assistance of a local Certified Deaf Interpreter who is better equipped to connect with Deaf people in their native language.

The National Association of the Deaf has established a Position Statement on Accessible Emergency Management for Deaf and Hard of Hearing People which details the best practices for federal, state, and local government organizations. But still, the d/Deaf community gets left out of the loop on every level. When the wildfires began sweeping through northern California, many residents reported that they did not receive any text emergency alerts, which it turns out was due to a simple, yet lethal lack of established protocol within the local government. Once again, we see d/Deaf/HoH people completely forgotten in the panic.



Always seeking solutions, deaf people have time and again established their own makeshift systems for emergency management. Knowing that mainstream channels become unreliable, they utilize their own resources to spread information, share updates, and stay connected through crises. Social media has helped with this cause tremendously. Not only can people share their personal experiences and stay in communication with their families and friends, but on the other side of the coin, it allows non-profits, advocacy groups, and activists to amplify updates, and share needs and urgent requests of marginalized people throughout an emergency or disaster.

Let’s take a look at examples from recent events where the deaf community has jumped in fill in the gaps left by mainstream emergency management:

Puerto Rico – Hurricane Maria

Hurricane Irma – Southeastern US

  • Florida Association of the Deaf president Lissette Molina Wood offers storm updates in ASL.
  • YouTube user Paul Simmons put together a short clip comparing three different interpreters in Florida during emergency broadcasts to clearly highlight the dangerous inconsistency of services for the deaf community:

California Wildfires

Other Resources

*NOTE: This collection is brief and by no means exhaustive. Please feel free to add additional resources in the comments!


city-state-gov-emergency-services-natural-diasters-deaf-hoh-people-02The d/Deaf/HoH community has developed grassroots systems for crisis management and dissemination of information out of sheer necessity. After being left out and left behind so many times, deaf individuals have been forced to realize that the existing emergency procedures do very little to protect them. These community efforts are impressive, but they’re simply NOT enough.

Deaf people are highly practiced when it comes to navigating major rifts in communication, but in the event of a crisis their entire lives might hinge on this skill set. When you don’t even know there is a natural disaster, or a shooting, or a terrorist threat, how can you properly react? Once your house is gone and you have no cell service, where can you get aid?

In our modern world, with all the technologies available, there is simply no excuse for this lack of access to centralized emergency management. Deaf people have the right to real-time updates from a reliable source. They deserve to know the exact same details that are provided to the hearing population, so they can make informed decisions about their personal safety during times of crisis. Emergency information should not be a privilege granted only to certain citizens.

Deaf Interpreter Goes Viral

doctor-patient-asl-communicationLast week, Mayor Bill de Blasio addressed the citizens of New York to discuss the city’s first confirmed case of Ebola. During the press conference the mayor’s ASL interpreter, Jonathan Lamberton, gained a bit of attention on the Internet. Most of the commentary centered around Lamberton’s expressiveness, which is actually just part of sign language, but missed the most compelling aspect of this particular interpreter: he is Deaf.

For hearing people who do not have any experience with Deaf culture, it might be hard to understand how Certified Deaf Interpreters (CDI) are used, and why they are necessary. In this instance, the CDI was working as a team with a hearing interpreter who sat in the audience. The hearing interpreter was signing the message to Lamberton, who was interpreting it on camera. But why have two interpreters?

american-sign-language-interpreterNew York City is truly a melting pot with people of all ethnic backgrounds, education levels, and ability. In times when peoples’ health or lives might be in danger, communication becomes absolutely critical. There is no room for miscommunication when state officials are addressing the public safety.

Utilizing an interpreter whose native language is ASL can be a good match when your audience is unknown. While a high quality hearing interpreter may be able to do a great job, a CDI has the ability to reach ASL users on every level. This ensures that the message is conveyed to a broad audience.

lydia-callis-asl-bloomberg-press-conferenceDeaf people who use sign language to communicate may read and write English quite well; or they may not know English at all. Many deaf people have excellent ASL skills, while others only know informal sign languages called “home signs.” Additionally, in a large city like New York there is a whole audience of foreign born deaf people for whom ASL is a second language.

Deaf interpreters come from a background of visual language, so they are able to “let go” of the English form more easily. Because sign language is their native language, deaf interpreters can communicate with deaf consumers on a level that other interpreters just may not be able to get to. CDIs tend to be more intuitive when it comes to foreign sign languages, informal signs, and translating cross cultural messages.

Imagine you’re an older person who immigrated here from Cambodia at a time when that country did not have any official sign language. The language you’ve used your whole life is a combination of signs and gestures which does not correlate in any way to ASL. A hearing sign language interpreter might have a very challenging time interpreting your doctor’s appointment, finding it difficult to explain technical terms in a way you understand. Our ethical obligation as interpreters is to ensure the deaf consumer receives the service they deserve. This is one example where a CDI could be called in.

asl-interpreter-nycDelivering health and safety information is an important role, not an entertainment event. It puts a lot of pressure on ASL interpreters when their performance is judged not only by deaf consumers, but by hearing audiences who have little understanding of the job at hand.

During the press conference, one Twitter user claimed that everyone around him thought the interpreter was “faking it” like the infamous Nelson Mandela memorial interpreter. Other hearing commenters critiqued the deaf interpreter’s signing style, as if he was putting on a show for them. When an interpreter’s signing does not match the speaker’s vocalizations, or the signing is very passionate, it does not mean the interpreter is making up a language or just acting. Sign language interpreters exist to serve the needs of deaf consumers in the best and most ethical way they are able.

american-sign-languageIt’s wonderful when sign language gets so much Internet attention, because it provides new opportunities for mainstream society to become educated about Deaf culture. I think it is important that when general audiences to see ASL interpreters in the media, they understand the true the function we serve.

Deaf During Disaster

In 2003, a Russian boarding school for deaf students caught fire in the middle of the night. In the old building, there were no flashing alarm lights or vibrating beds to awaken the students. There were no emergency precautions in place at all. Instead, 28 young boys lost their lives to the blaze, while teachers frantically ran room to room, desperately pulling children from their beds.

Catastrophe can strike at any time, anywhere. Imagine learning there was a major disaster near your home, but not having any reliable information about it. Imagine the fear and panic caused by a flood, hurricane, or wildfire. If you couldn’t communicate with anyone, would you know what to do? If your hard of hearing parent were in the disaster zone, would anyone help them?

Centralized emergency management provisions for the Deaf

The severe lack of centralized emergency management provisions for the Deaf is alarming, and definitely unequal. While the hearing population gets bombarded with crisis updates across multiple media, to the point of redundancy; deaf citizens are left confused, trying to follow news reports without closed captioning or digging for info on the web. Deaf individuals are more likely to miss early warnings because they aren’t listening to the radio or television. Keeping up with real-time developments is difficult when you cannot just flip on the news, and relying on secondhand information from hearing citizens is hardly sufficient.  Following emergency situations, many deaf survivors report that they did not fully understand what occurred until a few days or even weeks later.

NY: Bloomberg Hurricane Sandy Update and Gas Rationing Press ConferenceDuring the Hurricane Sandy press conferences, I had to firmly advocate for visibility on screen. What Mayor Bloomberg had to say was critical for New Yorkers to know, and it was my job to make sure that message was delivered to the deaf community. In the middle of a crisis, ASL interpreters cannot do our jobs from the sidelines! We should not have to insist on the importance of our role, and it is uncomfortable to defend yourself at a time when people may be in danger. Interpreters serve the community best when they are front and center. I have heard numerous reports of interpreters being present during press conferences, but being left out of the shot on air. How on Earth can an interpreter deliver a message to the deaf if he or she cannot be seen on TV?

When there is a crisis, everyone needs to know the procedure. Every person deserves to remain informed and up-to-the-minute. It is not fair that, because deaf people can not speak, they get left behind or are moved around without explanation. It is not fair that a frightened deaf child looking for her parents during a disaster would just remain confused in silence. Emergency personnel arrive, but interpreters do not arrive with them.

When Hurricane Katrina hit, there seemed to be no FEMA provisions for the hard of hearing, and deaf survivors were never informed when volunteer interpreters were finally available. This lack of organization resulted in frustration and wasted interpreter resources, and it happens far too often. During the recent tornado in Moore, OK, deaf residents were fortunate to escape with their lives, receiving secondhand updates from friends and family members. An unofficial FaceBook page was created to account for deaf residents. Why is this our emergency management plan?


There are more technologies available to us than ever before, and I would love to see some of these utilized for large-scale disaster management. Personal data is collected by nearly every agency in existence, it seems like some of this information could be used by police and emergency responders to identify and assist deaf citizens. Text 911 is finally being widely implemented but, in the age of the smartphone, why has it taken so long? Some forward thinking is needed to further the practical use of our modern capabilities.

Public Servants & Emergency Services

In addition to better technological communication, I firmly believe that police, fire, and medical personnel should receive basic ASL training. There are more than 10 million individuals with some form of hearing loss living in the United States today, including 15% of those over 65. In the event of a major catastrophe, that means there are 10 million people who might not hear the news report or evacuation instructions, and these numbers are large enough to warrant some attention. Emergency responders should be trained to assist the deaf population with basic instructions in ASL because deaf citizens deserve the same service and protection as everyone else. Human life is the number one priority during a disaster and, if deaf individuals are not kept informed, they will likely be left behind.