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Emergency Communication Excludes People with Disabilities, Report Finds

Katz, Alissa

doi: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000452253.39731.69
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When Christian Vogler, PhD's, wife was in a car accident three years ago, it took between eight and 10 minutes for a 9-1-1 interpreter to connect her to the nearest 9-1-1 help center. And the delay hasn't drastically changed since then, Dr. Vogler said.

Dr. Vogler, who directs the Technology Access Program in the Department of Communication Studies at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., is one of many in the field who say there need to be more efforts to provide efficient, consistent communication during emergencies for those who are deaf or hard of hearing, like he and his wife.

Christian Vogler, PhD

“Time was ticking,” Dr. Vogler said through an interpreter. “If you were in a real emergency and wanted immediate attention but had to wait eight to 10 minutes, you could imagine how that would feel. It's a difficult problem to solve.”

Emergency communications remain largely inaccessible to people with disabilities, despite legal mandates requiring accessibility, the National Council on Disability (NCD) reported in Effective Communications for People with Disabilities: Before, During, and After Emergencies, released May 27.

The report summarized key holes in emergency preparedness, including a lack of consolidated, consistent, and coordinated guidance for emergency managers about the communication needs of people with disabilities; the unmet need for increased outreach to the disability community; and the inaccessibility of technology for those with disabilities.

These gaps, among others, became increasingly tangible as Hurricane Sandy battered the East Coast of the United States in fall 2012. (For more information, read the article on emergency preparedness published in The Hearing Journal’s March 2013 issue).

“Emergency managers must ensure that the communications needs of people with disabilities and others with access and functional needs are integrated into all parts of emergency planning at the local, state, tribal, and federal levels,” the NCD said in the report.


Despite the problems identified with current emergency communications for people with disabilities, some places are doing it right.

For example, the Maricopa County Department of Emergency Management in Arizona was singled out by the NCD as the most prepared and proactive county of those interviewed.

Pete Weaver

Pete Weaver, the department's director, said he thinks some parts of the country aren't as aware or aggressive with communication in this population because people are afraid of causing offense.

“You have to find the collaborators who'll really get down to the nitty-gritty, communicating where things are and how we can work together,” he said. “But I think a lot of people are apprehensive that they'll offend someone by saying the wrong thing or hurt feelings by not being politically correct.”

The issue of access to emergency communications becomes most palpable when disaster strikes, meaning that the solutions put in place are usually only temporary.

Susan Ivey, MD, MHSA

“We get these bumps post-9/11 and post-[Hurricane] Katrina, but there needs to be an ongoing funding strategy from the federal government to the states, to the local governments, and to nongovernmental organizations in order to maintain a level of preparedness in the population,” said Susan Ivey, MD, MHSA, an associate adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health.

“With those funds going up and down all of the time, it's harder for people to plan for and maintain training. Training isn't just a one-time thing.”

One strategy that has proved useful, particularly during Hurricane Sandy, is social media. People with disabilities logged onto Facebook to ask for help, requesting additional fuel and donations for sustainable batteries to power ventilators, for example, as noted in the NCD report.

Still, social media's effectiveness for any emergency situation depends on demographics, since a population of college students is more likely to take to Twitter or Facebook than an older population is, the NCD added.

On the topic of generational differences, Dr. Ivey and colleagues conducted focus groups about effective communication for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. The research is in a preliminary stage.

The research team interviewed two groups of seniors and two groups of young people. The latter segment was described as college students and young professionals.

“There was a very clear difference between the groups on a lot of themes, but one of them was what I would call communication readiness,” Dr. Ivey said.

“The young people felt that they were very tied in and had good abilities to contact their support system in emergencies, whereas the older adults expressed concern that they might not find out as quickly and were more receptive to tools like registries, where somebody might come to find them.”

Future effectiveness in helping deaf or hard of hearing people before, during, and after emergencies depends on ever-changing technological advancements.

“Technology is going to continue to evolve, and you have to do your best to stay with it,” Mr. Weaver said. “You're not always going to be on the cutting, front edge, but you have to be close to it.”

Texting Plays Evolving Role in Emergency Communication

Alina Engelman, DrPH, MPH

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted a policy statement Jan. 30 to emphasize the need for uniformly available Text-to-911 service, which allows text messages to be sent from a mobile phone to 9-1-1 emergency call takers.

The FCC also announced a proposed rule for all text providers to make Text-to-911 available by the end of the year. Currently, four major wireless carriers—AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint—have voluntarily opened their networks to allow users to text 911 directly.

“If this is implemented by state and local jurisdictions on a nationwide level, it would be a major step forward for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals in an emergency,” said Alina Engelman, DrPH, MPH, an affiliated researcher with Health Research for Action at the University of California, Berkeley.

For now, however, the ability to contact 911 via text message is only available in certain areas of the country—all of Maine and Vermont, and parts of Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Montana, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.

“Texting is only a temporary solution,” said Christian Vogler, PhD, the director of the Technology Access Program in the Department of Communication Studies at Gallaudet University. Dr. Vogler is involved with the Emergency Access Advisory Committee (EAAC), which has released several reports about 911 access requirements.

The newest advance in texting technology is Next Generation 9-1-1, which would enable texts to be sent in real time. In other words, 9-1-1 call centers would see the text as it was being written, as opposed to having to wait for the text to be sent in its entirety.

“We're excited about this,” Dr. Vogler said. —Alissa Katz

© 2014 by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.