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Emergency Planning for the Disabled Is an Uphill Battle

But the deaf community and its advocates are working hard to effect change.

by / September 24, 2012
Image from Shutterstock

If anything positive came out of the Sept. 11 attacks, it was increased awareness of the need for emergency preparedness. Laws have been passed, executive orders issued, groups formed — all in an effort to ensure communities are in a better position to respond to an unforeseen catastrophic incident today than they were that fateful morning.

Yet some groups are still struggling to make headway. Executive Order 13347, signed by President George W. Bush on July 22, 2004, was drafted as part of an effort to strengthen emergency preparedness for individuals with disabilities. The order’s goal was to “ensure that the federal government appropriately supports safety and security for individuals with disabilities in situations involving disasters, including earthquakes, tornadoes, fires, floods, hurricanes, and acts of terrorism.”

Eight years after that order was issued, there is still a lot to do. According to Individuals with Disabilities in Emergency Preparedness, a collaborative report of the Interagency Coordinating Council on Emergency Preparedness and Individuals with Disabilities published by the DHS, “disaster and emergency mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery planning efforts often overlook people with disabilities.”

Stephanie Jo Kent, a certified interpreter for the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) and founder of the Learning Lab for Resiliency, agrees. “Deaf people think emergency management doesn’t care about them,” she said. “The American deaf community remains essentially neglected despite generations of struggle and decades’-old accessibility rights legislation.”

But that may soon change. Although the deaf community represents just a portion of the estimated 54 million Americans with disabilities, it is one group that’s working hard at the grass-roots level to make progress in emergency management and training.

Search for Solutions

In July 2010, RID formed a workgroup to explore interpreting in the emergency management field and to develop a standard practice paper on interpreting in emergency/disaster situations. “We want to make sure protective measures are in place for interpreters that will allow them to be fully integrated into the incident command system in the case of a major emergency,” said Angela Kaufman, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) coordinator for Los Angeles and chair of the committee.

State and federal government agencies can pass endless legislation addressing this issue, but all emergencies begin at the local level, and inclusion of sign language interpreters in preparedness, response and recovery activities varies greatly by state and by city. “The challenge has been developing something comprehensive,” said Rick Pope, a member of the committee and leader of the Georgia Emergency Management Interpreting Initiative. “There is no cohesive standard at this time.”

Legally, state and local governments are responsible for assisting people with disabilities, whether that occurs during an emergency situation or not. Theoretically, then, it shouldn’t be difficult to locate interpreters during an emergency, Kaufman said. “But government has struggled with getting interpreters,” she said. “Sometimes on the local government level, it’s not found out until a complaint is filed. But many times states and cities don’t have the contracts in place with interpreters who are qualified and prepared to help in an emergency.”

To be most effective, Pope said, it’s critical that interpreters who are prepared to act in an emergency are contracted ahead of time, so they can start to form relationships with local emergency management personnel. When an emergency happens, collaboration and trust between interpreters and fire, police, emergency management and military personnel will be needed.

It’s also important that interpreters designated to assist in an emergency be prepared. “They should have an understanding of the Incident Command System and the National Incident Management System, and they should understand the risks involved,” said Terri Schisler, president of the Florida RID. “A background and exposure to medical and law enforcement interpreting can also be helpful.”

Part of the challenge, of course, is budgetary. One solution Kent proposes is legislation that grants “temporary emergency responder” designation to nursing homes, home health care, and independent and supported living aides.  “Until local laborers are brought into the fold of the entire emergency life cycle, it will be impossible to achieve resilience on a scale and at a quality that protects all citizens regardless of their degree of vulnerability,” she said.

Social Media Options

One approach Kent has explored to improve communication with deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals during an emergency involves social media tools such as Twitter. A planned national test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) last November led Kent to wonder if smartphones and social media tools might help at least get the first critical messages across to nonhearing citizens, so Kent and some colleagues conducted an experiment. They spread the word that the Twitter hashtag #DEMX was created to represent an emergency of some type. They wanted to see how the hashtag would spread among both deaf and hearing people near the time of the test.

Though Kent’s experiment brought attention to the issue, and the hashtag spread well, there didn’t appear to be much crossover between the two critical groups. “Deaf citizens shared information within the deaf community, and emergency management planners and responders shared the information within their community,” Kent said in her blog post about the project.

Advocates for the deaf community say social media tools could be helpful, but they are just one piece of the puzzle. Los Angeles is using social media tools in the emergency management environment for the general public, and Kaufman said the results are being watched closely for potential applications within the deaf community. “So far there have been pros and cons,” she said. “One comment we hear is that during a major incident, so much is happening — who do you follow? Misinformation can easily get distributed through a social media tool like Twitter. In some cases I think it could do more harm than good, especially when it comes to public health issues.”

In addition, not everyone can afford the smartphones or other devices required to receive such messages. And depending on how long an incident goes on, devices will eventually be rendered useless without access to backup power. “You have to use multiple levels of communication,” Schisler said. “And you have to understand that some of those methods are going to fail as time goes on.”

Making Progress

The RID workgroup members were chosen because of some of the excellent work they’re already doing in their states to ensure interpreters are provided to the deaf community in an emergency.

The Los Angeles Department on Disability (DOD), one of the few municipal offices of its kind in the U.S., is a nationally recognized leader involved with all aspects of emergency preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation throughout Los Angeles. Kaufman said intense efforts got under way in the city following the 1994 Northridge earthquake. At the time, Kaufman was an interpreter and witnessed firsthand what the deaf community went through following the quake. Today, the L.A. DOD works with law enforcement, fire and other first responders routinely.

Pope is leading a collaborative initiative in Georgia called the Georgia Emergency Management Interpreting Initiative (GEMINI). “It’s been a challenge in Georgia just getting players to the table,” he said. “It’s a true grass-roots community effort to educate both sides — emergency managers about interpreting, and interpreters about emergency management.”

The Florida Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf has been hosting special Community Emergency Response Team trainings to interpreters through a grant it received last year. “We want to have qualified interpreters ready to be deployed by next year,” said Schisler.


In addition to its current assignment, the RID workgroup is also developing a toolkit for state and local governments focusing on how to incorporate interpreter strike teams. The workgroup hopes momentum will continue to build around preparing emergency personnel and interpreters to work together effectively during an emergency, especially as the number of natural disasters have been increasing over the last several years.

“As our nation continues to gear up to the inevitable increasing frequency of natural disasters, emergency management as a field needs to evolve,” Kent said. “More skilled people are needed who not only know how to work as part of coordinated team efforts, but are also prepared to make themselves available during a crisis. This also means leaving their own families, friends, pets,
etc., to care for others, he said, adding that interpreters are a prime example of a core group of practice professionals who need to be integrated into the overall Incident Command Structure of emergency response.

“It’s really about keeping interpreters safe and getting them to understand their role in emergency management and how to be part of a team in providing resources for the deaf community,” Kaufman said. “We need to get something in place so that interpreters are viewed the same as all other responders, that they don’t have problems gaining access during an emergency, and so that people understand their role and why they are there.”

Justine Brown Contributing Writer

Justine Brown is a veteran journalist who specializes in technology and education. Email her at

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