Assisting Individuals Who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing in Emergencies

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Assisting Individuals Who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing in Emergencies

Alice Frame, MA - Program Coordinator, Disability Health Unit - Michigan Department of Health and Human Services

During emergencies, responders assist all types of people and strive to meet the needs of everyone – including those with various types of disabilities. However, people with some types of disabilities use different methods of communication than responders may be used to. For example, 48 million Americans are deaf or hard of hearing.

Debunking some misconceptions about people who are deaf or hard of hearing:

  1. All people who are deaf or hard of hearing can read lips. – In fact, only some people who are deaf or hard of hearing can read lips. Also, speaking with increased volume or at a slower pace does not necessarily make it possible for everyone either.
  2. All people who are deaf or hard of hearing use sign language, and sign language is universal. –Many people who are deaf use American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate, but many do not. Sign language is also not universal – every country has its own native sign language.
  3. Hearing aids can help people who are deaf. – Hearing aids amplify sound for individuals who have hearing limitations. They will not make it so individuals who are deaf can hear.
  4. People who are deaf cannot speak. – Many people who are deaf or hard of hearing can speak. They may choose not to because they cannot gauge their volume or judge if their words are coming out correctly. This is particularly common among people who have been deaf their whole lives and have never heard what words are supposed to sound like.
  5. People who are deaf do not drive. – Many individuals who are deaf do drive, assuming they are physically able to do so and have full sight.  In fact, sometimes people who are deaf have more highly developed sight than those who can hear.

Consideration of issues that affect people with disabilities starts in the planning process – all trainings, town meetings, and informational sessions should be accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing. This can be done through sign language interpreters or CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation) real-time transcribing.

In emergency response, officials know there are multiple ways to get a message out to everyone. In the same way, there is not one right way to reach everyone who is deaf or hard of hearing. However, it’s important to make all channels as accessible as possible. If television is used for messaging, make sure the important information is also typed on the screen through the use of closed captioning. Emergency alerts can be provided by text message or the use of a teleprinter (TTY), in addition to  standard phone lines and radio.  The more channels used to disseminate messages, the more people are reached.

When responding to an emergency or providing assistance on scene, it is useful to have equipment for alternative communication methods. This can be as simple as having pen and paper. When assisting someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, information can be conveyed by writing it down.

The ultimate goal for any responder is to reach those who need assistance during an emergency.  These tips can be used to enhance the already extensive knowledge base of the responder and provide new ways to reach those in deaf and hard of hearing community during an emergency.