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Deaf/Blind Community Emergency Planning: Are You Ready?

Accident - Deaf - disaster - Translation - Blind

The recent 7.8 magnitude earthquakes in Turkey and Syria that occurred on February 6, 2023 are a painful reminder that disaster and emergencies can happen anytime and anywhere. The damage can run deep and destabilize communities for years to come.

They often hit when you least expect it.

The best response to a disaster is one when where there is pre-planning, coordination, preparation, and mobilization among all parties such as local, state, national, and even international emergency response teams. In emergency situations, communication and information exchange often means the difference between life and death.

In this guide we’ll explore DeafBlind community emergency planning and provide approaches and resources to ensure no one gets left behind in an emergency.

A blind man relaxes at the park as he thinks about emergency planning

So Who Is Included In Planning?

When engaging in emergency preparations – are the needs of those with disabilities considered? Are those with lived experiences and disabilities a part of the discussion and training process? More often the answer is no. Accessibility is an afterthought in the emergency planning process and those who are deaf, hard of hearing, or deafblind especially struggle with receiving information due to inaccessible communication and information.

Consider for instance the COVID-19 pandemic with its stay-at-home orders and social distancing – the deafblind community was especially isolated. Due to their combined hearing and vision losses – tactile or touch communication is frequently the most accessible means to convey information.

Many deafblind individuals work with support service providers (SSPs) or Co-Navigators to navigate their environment as well as deafblind interpreters who communicate information through a variety of methods including close-up interpreting, haptics (touch), tactile American Sign Language (TASL), or protactile. Those communication methods were suddenly unavailable for many deafblind individuals with social distancing and stay-at-home orders not allowing close contact or touch for the health and safety of all.

Ad Astra ensures interpreters can help in emergency planning

How Do These Failures Happen?

When regular communication methods or mediums fail, the fallback is often to revert to basic methods of communication such as announcements over loudspeakers, audible

sirens, door-to-door messaging, radio and/or press conferences broadcast live over television.

Sirens, loudspeakers, and radio are largely inaccessible for those who have hearing issues. Television or video is more accessible, but not if individuals have vision issues, the content is not captioned, and/or if the content is not interpreted. For deafblind individuals who may rely on close-up interpreting or tactile communication, they may not find either audio or visual mediums accessible.

Further compounding matters, disasters or emergencies can often impact communication lines reducing high speed data access for those with smartphones or tablets. When trying to call emergency services, many 911 centers still rely on landlines and do not accept text messages.1 Those who may end up at emergency shelters may suddenly find themselves with language and communication barriers.

The Data About the Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and Deaf Blind Communities

With an estimated 3.5-20% of all Americans having a hearing loss of some sort, this means anywhere between 11.5 to 66.7 million Americans are deaf or hard of hearing based on the 2022 Census population. Using the same figures, the number who are deafblind range anywhere between 0.02 – 1% of the general population or 33,239 to 3.3 million individuals in the United States. The Helen Keller National Center for the DeafBlind reports that as of May 2022 there are 15,134 people on their voluntary-registered National DeafBlind Registry.

It is clear that deaf, hard of hearing, and deafblind individuals occupy a significant portion of the population and have a right to access communication and information for their safety and in order to make informed decisions just like any other citizen of the United States.

A team of contractors discusses local emergency planning for the Deaf

Inclusive Planning

The question then becomes how can we ensure that all citizens, especially those with disabilities and language access needs, are prepared for an emergency. As mentioned above – pre-planning, coordination, preparation, and mobilization are the best responses to a disaster. Working with community members, local, state, and national agencies, and including disabled individuals and those with various language access requirements, is key in the planning process.

For instance, in response to many deaf, hard of hearing, and deafblind people decrying the lack of access during live press conferences during the COVID-19 pandemic, various entities and agencies responded by adding live ASL interpretation during press briefings. On a local level, local non-profit organizations and agencies who knew of deafblind clients who were isolated figured out strategies to communicate while still keeping everyone safe and complying with stay-at-home and social distancing orders. These examples of grassroots efforts are a worthwhile model to consider including in disaster planning efforts.

Coordination involves knowing who is responsible for responding to disasters or emergencies. For instance, a wildfire can be the responsibility of state or federal governments depending on where it’s located. Each entity should have an accessibility plan and a plan for coordination and seamless transitions. Rather than rely on specific localities or entities to handle accessibility, it may be best to centralize where possible to ensure appropriate consultation, placement, and feedback and figure out details such as billing later.

For example, in Colorado, the Governor’s office relied on the Colorado Commission for the Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and DeafBlind to schedule and coordinate sign language interpreters during the Governor’s COVID-19 press conferences due to their expertise and experience with coordinating and scheduling auxiliary services. This arrangement was not typical, but it was one developed in response to an emergency because it made the most sense and was the most seamless way to provide access.

An emergency worker rescues a child in a disaster

Preparedness and Mobilization

Preparation involves securing all the appropriate agreements and protocols are developed and in place. For instance, it was discovered that it was not as simple to do picture-in-picture for sign language interpreters as production teams would have to coordinate with broadcasters on navigating this issue. Or sometimes red tape held things up in terms of securing and utilizing sign language interpreters during press conferences.

Many agencies require layers of approval, bidding, and contract procurement before a sign language interpreter can even show up to do an assignment. This arrangement is not always feasible during an emergency. It is a good idea to run through possible scenarios of how different agencies might work together, determine who is responsible for what, identify what accessibility measures are needed and can be utilized, and ensure that the pathway is clear to provide accessibility in all emergency communications.

Mobilization is the proof of concept stage. When disaster strikes or an emergency occurs, all of the above is put to the test. However, simply providing accessibility is only a start. Community planning includes identifying and locating those who may need assistance – this part is where access to a grassroots network comes in handy. Community education is part of the mobilization effort – there are some deafblind friendly apps and communication tools and resources that emerged during the recent pandemic that come in handy for emergencies. Emergency response planning groups should be certain those apps and tools are also being utilized and populated with information as they are communicated with the public.

Consider also social media, email threads, listservs, text-messaging chains, and consulting local and national registries, contacting independent living centers, service providers, local agencies, and organizations with known contact with deafblind individuals as alternative means of

communication. If evacuation or life or death situations occur, be sure to communicate with the general public to notify authorities if they know of any individuals that may not be receiving crucial information or messaging and may be at risk. This messaging could apply to many members of the population such as the elderly, disabled, those who communicate via different languages, and etc

Ad Astra interpreters discuss a Deafblind emergency plan

The Importance of Training and Education

Training should also occur for emergency responders on what to do if encountering a deaf, hard of hearing, or deafblind person in an emergency where communication is a challenge. For instance, every deafblind person that receives training of any sort is taught that in an emergency, if someone draws a big “X” on their back, it means it’s an emergency, grab the person’s arm and go immediately and everything will be explained later. This information is helpful for an emergency responder who may not be able to spare precious seconds to communicate.

More awareness and involvement of those with disabilities and lived experiences in the planning process is starting to happen at the federal level and rippling down to state and local agencies. More training, information, and education campaigns are needed to better prepare for emergencies and disasters in order to make communication and information accessible to all. Accessibility should be a forethought, not an afterthought. After all, it is often noted that accessibility benefits everyone, not just those with disabilities.

Conclusion and Resources

There are plenty of ways to learn more about what resources are available for deaf, hard of hearing, and deafblind individuals to use in an emergency.

Connect with your local emergency preparation groups, contact your local, state, or national officials. Also reach out to your local independent living, deaf, hard of hearing, and deafblind organizations, or any state associations or commissions for the deaf to find out what actions are being taken to collaborate and ensure accessibility.

Further Reading and Resources:

International Deaf Emergency 

Deaf Community Outreach 

The Deaf and Disabled in Natural Disasters 

Silent no more: Identifying and breaking through the barriers that d/Deaf people face in responding to hazards and disasters

Top 10 Communication Methods in a Disaster Setting 

Prioritizing Interpretation and Translation During Emergency Response 

Individuals with Disabilities 

Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons Emergency Preparedness and Emergency Communication Access-Lessons Learned Since 9/11 and Recommendation 

Resources for You and Your Community 

Deaf and Hard of Hearing: Disaster tips