Left out of the Conversation

Submitted by Paul Simmons on Wed, 01/02/2019
People meeting in a room
People meeting in a room.


I am a Deaf person who works for the Rocky Mountain ADA Center as an Information Specialist. I work with ADA Effective Communication requirements as they relate to people with communication disabilities. I am also certified with the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) of the El Paso County Office of Emergency Management. My goal is to ensure that people with disabilities—especially Deaf people—have equal access during emergencies.

Emergency management usually falls under ADA Title II entities, which are State and Local governments. These programs cover four main areas as defined by the Federal Emergency Management:

1) mitigation; 2) preparedness; 3) response; and 4) recovery.

In my role, I take part in presentations and attend workshops on the ADA in emergency management. I have found that there is an under-representation of people with disabilities in emergency management conversations. Specifically, for Deaf people who communicate through sign language.

I recently attended a workshop about the use of interpreters in emergency management. There were many people from various branches of several local government agencies present. The keynote speaker was a certified interpreter with years of emergency management experience. She spoke about providing effective communication during emergencies. She answered questions from the audience and was knowledgeable about Emergency Management Planning. During several recent wildfires, she worked with the Deaf, hard of hearing, and DeafBlind community. She wanted to be sure people were able to receive the information needed to be safe.

A few hours before the workshop, my Deaf colleague received a message that there may not be a sign language interpreter at the workshop. I was dismayed and confused, since this workshop was about communication access for Deaf people during emergencies. However, upon arrival, there were two certified ASL interpreters present. These interpreters facilitated communication between all the attendees. Overall, this was an excellent workshop that was very illuminating.

But, after departing the event, it took me a while to process a sense of unease and discord that I was feeling. It troubled and saddened me that there were only a small number of Deaf people present. Seemingly, this was a failure by the organizers to involve members of the Deaf community. They didn't use local Deaf experts to collaborate with the keynote speaker to provide a model of effective communication.

Such exclusion is contrary to the “Nothing About Us Without Us” maxim used by the disability community worldwide. This saying means that decisions and discussions about us should involve us. This event was about emergency planning and communication access for the Deaf/hard of hearing community, and yet only a small number of us were there! Members of the Deaf community would have benefited from this event.

I would offer this suggestion for future events involving people who are Deaf, hard of hearing, DeafBlind, and people with communication disabilities:

1) Members of the affected population should have an invitation, be represented, and involved;

2) Ensure that ASL interpreters are always present at events that concern the Deaf community;

3) Invite a Deaf person to co-present at such events;

4) Model what an effective communication team looks like; and

5) Bear in mind who is the target audience and be sure that there is adequate representation.

We know that people with disabilities are usually the last to receive aid during emergencies. This is especially true for those who are Deaf and hard of hearing because they cannot hear announcements. The ADA addresses accessibility for people with disabilities during emergencies, ensuring that emergency programs, services, activities, and facilities are accessible.

Nelson Mandela, the iconic South African resistance hero said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Unfortunately, too often people with disabilities are excluded from being part of the conversation.

If you have any questions about the conference or my work, please don’t hesitate to reach out!

Subscribe to Access Granted

The Rocky Mountain ADA Center's blog, Access Granted, tackles ADA issues through unique and diverse perspectives. Articles are written by staff of RMADAC and a variety of special guest authors. Some may be educational, others might be personal or thought-provoking. Either way, Access Granted will bring you the ADA of today!

Complete the form below and never miss a new blog post!

* indicates required