It was a tiny pop quiz in the midst of a comprehensive examination.

First Responders do reach out to the Deaf community

First Responders reaching to the Deaf community

During last November’s nationwide test of FEMA’s public warning system, an action research study (#DEMX) was conducted to assess the communication potential of social media. The goal was to find a way to bridge the longstanding divide between “people of the eye” who use American Sign Language and emergency responders who rely on their ears. From the Deaf point-of-view, these “hearing people” are dependent on sound.

A dedicated group of social media pioneers keeps pushing the envelope of public communication within the field of emergency management. Meanwhile, the American Deaf community remains essentially neglected despite generations of struggle and decades-old accessibility rights legislation.

in all of the years of researching and taking courses / training in crisis communications – one group has not been mentioned as much as others.  This audience group is the deaf community. ~ Karen Freberg

Tweeting against Historical Trends

One popular social media tool for emergency warnings is Twitter. It is unclear how many Deaf people know about this timely and current source of information about emergencies of all kinds. Meteorologists are using Twitter to warn populations in their local media markets about serious weather events, and some emergency responders are using Twitter as part of crisis communication and disaster response. Figures 1 &  2 show a key result from the #DEMX experiment run during the November 2011 national “Emergency Alert System” test. Overall, although information about the Twitter-based #DEMX test spread, there was very little crossover between the two groups: Deaf citizens shared information within the Deaf community, and emergency management planners and responders shared the information within their community. This leads to a conclusion regarding how hard it is to stimulate conversation between communities who have an (apparently entrenched) history of ineffective communication.

However, in the course of a short campaign, the #DEMX Tweetstream garnered 163 unique users, and the Prezi explaining the idea (in English and ASL) got 1,500 hits! The information spread, but it was decontextualized from the relationships that need to be built among First Responders and members of the signing Deaf community.

Strategy (Action Research Methodology)

Few Deaf Tweeters "cross over" to the First Responder tweetstream

Few Deaf Tweeters "cross over" to the First Responder tweetstream

An already existing Twitter community using the hashtag, #SMEM (for social media emergency management), was introduced to a new hashtag, #DEMX (for deaf emergency management of variable “x”). The #DEMX hashtag was invented for this experiment, so it had no pre-existing user base. A late-deafened blogger and tweeter, Joyce Edmiston (@expressivehandz), spearheaded spreading the #DEMX hashtag among her followers. Using a text analysis software tool, we were able to track the spread of news about this social media experiment in both communities and break down the results.

Findings: A small but dedicated leading edge

In the nine days of monitoring (from November 2-11, 2011, with the test day on November 9), the 163 users in the #DEMX tweetstream gathered 765 tweets, while the #SMEM tweetstream garnered 5,759 tweets, generated by  1,135 unique users. We were interested in the tweets that included both hashtags. Barely 1/2 of 1% of #DEMX tweets included the #SMEM hashtag; and only .01% of #SMEM tweets included the #DEMX hashtag. Research team member Joe Delfino of DiscoverText writes, “Unfortunately, the mass crossover of Tweets that we had envisioned did not occur.” By “drilling down” into the data, however, we were able to generate some findings that, combined with knowledge of the historical basis of the overall challenge, confirms hypotheses worth testing in another round of Twitter-based action research.

4:1 Ratio Hearing to Deaf

In the #DEMX tweetstream, there were 26 unique users who included the #SMEM hashtag. After eliminating tweets from members of the research team there were a total of 28 tweets from 23 unique users. Of these 23 unique users, 20 are not deaf – they are hearing people associated in one way or another with emergency management.  Only three deaf tweeters “crossed over” to the emergency management community tweetstream. Some reasons for this terribly low percentage are explored below.

In the #SMEM tweetstream, there were 17 unique users who included the #DEMX hashtag, again, after eliminating tweets by research team members,  tweets including both hashtags were sent by 13 unique users: 9 hearing and 4 deaf, repeating the pattern in which more hearing people reached out toward the Deaf community than Deaf people reached back to the “Hearing” world of emergency management.

Concerning? Yes. Disheartening? No!

Obviously these sample sizes are too small for statistical significance. However, they do suggest some generalizations that could be formulated into concrete hypotheses and studied on a more robust scale. One issue involves whether the Deaf American linguistic minority of American Deaf Culture can be convinced that the dominant culture actually cares. In promoting this action research project, I created an online presentation, Deaf Eye on Emergency!, which describes the context of the national emergency alert system test using visual imagery, written English and several videoclips of commentary using American Sign Language. The presentation garnered over 1500 views during the nine-day research window and 1,846 as of this posting. English translations of the ASL clips are available now so that non-signers can know and respond to the explanations and ideas expressed in the video clips.

Creating New Relationships

Although good efforts and success stories do circulate, there is no commonly-recognized and widely-used medium of communication (yet) that satisfactorily mediates the sight-sound perceptual distinction between “People of the Eye” and “Hearing” people.  Written English and spreading more information are perceived as “the answer.” While both of these strategies are necessary, without an interaction strategy to cultivate and redefine the inherited perception of neglect, systemic improvements in Deaf preparedness and contribution to emergency response efforts cannot occur.

An Interaction Strategy for Emergency Preparedness

Individual Deaf people often experience being told to wait while someone tries to figure out how to communicate with them, and then (usually) delivered sub-par and minimal information rather than being fully engaged as intelligent and competent human beings who can help resolve aspects of the situation, whatever it is. Historically, the legacies of discrimination and prejudice have convinced many members of Deaf culture that Hearing people really do not care about them. Serious effort needs to be strategically planned and exercised in order to overcome this unfortunate dynamic. It can be done, and if done well, crucial skills, knowledge, and benefits of resilience will flow from the Deaf community into the larger fabric of American society.