My dissertation is available through Scholarworks at the University of Massachusetts.



“Language is the medium and progenitor of discourse.”

~ Evangelina Holvino ~


This dissertation began twenty-five years ago, long before I entered graduate school, with the Deaf and Hearing members of the Bilingual-Bicultural Committee at the Indiana School for the Deaf.  By living what it means to be an ally, you gave me a taste of the possible and set my life on course. Together, all of you had achieved a large cohesive group where difference mattered but was not allowed to get in the way. I have not yet encountered another group with such a broad range of diversity and clearly shared purpose.

Continue reading “Interpreting”

The Deaf World is Watching. Will we respond?


Click here for a related vlog (in American Sign Language)

The second day after Mandela’s Memorial we were greeted the news that the so-called fake interpreter Thamsanqa Dyantyi/Jyantie is schizophrenic. (His claim and apology is being met with a mixture of belief and doubt.) Whatever sympathy he gleans should be suitable to his illness. This does not excuse the government for hiring him. It has apparently fallen to the Deputy Minister for Women, Children and People with Disabilities to take the heat. Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu explains that Mr Dyantyi “is Xhosa speaking. The English was a bit too much for him.”

That same day, the Deaf community continued to respond to the swell of disappointment and outrage over the lack of real communication access for Deaf people to participate in the Memorial Service for Nelson Mandela. The thoughtfulness of the Deaf world’s formal responses are worthy of careful attention.

‘People of the Eye’ respond with a full range of emotions

  • An elegant news feature from H3TV presents a biography of Nelson Mandela. Presented in international sign language, I learned Mandela’s name sign and a powerful sign for apartheid.
  • South African poet Modiegi Moime renders a beautiful tribute in South African Sign Language.
  • After watching a clip with a CNN anchor, Deaf actress Marlee Matlin explains,

“I can tell he’s thinking to himself,
‘Oh no, how should I do this,
well let’s see what I just did, I’ll do it again!'”

Deaf people have practice tolerating inadequate interpretation. Hearing people often disregard the quality of the interpreter, and many lose patience with this special process of intercultural communication. While “It’s probably safe to say that South Africa’s relationship with its deaf community is historically complex — much more complex than the “fake interpreter!” headlines would make it appear,” as Caitlin Dewey writes, it would be false to assume the problem with providing qualified sign language interpreter only occurs there.

A Certified Deaf Interpreter from the western United States (Utah), Jeff Pollock, makes a compelling argument that Hearing people should also be upset.

“The interpreter does not just work for Deaf people. They work for hearing people as well, [who] want to make sure that their messages are heard by the Deaf community.”

Mr Pollock briefly explains the sign language interpreter certification process in the United States and advocates that these processes of professionalization be taken more seriously.

Don’t move on too quickly…

The first gesture of Mandela-like reconciliation came, interestingly, from the same Deaf South African Parliamentarian who first alerted people to the incompetence of the ‘interpreter’ being televised from the stage.

Yesterday Wilma Neuhoudt tweeted, “Tata Madiba would have understood” while asserting her support for People with Disabilities (PWD).  Her early Tweets correctly used punctuation too, in contrast with every news story I’ve seen to date.Madiba would undestand

Journalists and their editors have been responsible, it seems, in putting ‘fake’ in quotation marks, shifting the focus from the single person—”this male so called interpreter” as Ms. Neuhoudt pinpointed the problem—to highlighting the challenge of people not fluent in a sign language to be able to distinguish quality just by looking.

It is hard to know, from the perspective of the whitewashed west, if there are different cultural values at work, such as factors of relationship or an ethos of inclusion focused on someone(s) other than the audience watching the broadcast. It does, however, seem that Ms. Neuhoudt suggests gender as an issue along with the essential absence of effective communication.

A strong signal for “Hearing” people

Interpreters began monitoring and sharing news reports all over the UK and US.
Interpreters began monitoring and sharing news reports all over the UK and US.

This is more than a “flap over ‘hand flapping’” as it is being sensationalized by an LA Times headline. It is true that Deaf people are embarrassed and even describe feeling “humiliated.” Upon arrival at an interpreting assignment in the US yesterday, a young Deaf consumer barely said hello to me before launching into a detailed description of how upset he feels. Allies of Deaf people and Deaf culture, many of them professional sign language interpreters are also furious.

Confusion about whether the white woman shown signing was part of the service or part of a journalism team at a news station.
Confusion about whether the white woman shown signing was part of the service or part of a journalism team at a news station.

This is the opposite phenomenon to the sensationalized dehumanizing of Lydia Callis’ emergency interpreting during Hurricane Sandy. Then it was all about hearing people’s exposure to the language Deaf people use to communicate, and now it’s all about the show Hearing people will put on while still avoiding real communication.

But the Deaf community has a lot more allies now! Friends who don’t know sign language checked in and shared articles. makesense Exposure to Deaf people and interpreters increases as Hearing people realize there are Deaf people living their lives alongside ours. They are letting us know, loud and clear, that they are watching, and they see.

Deaf people see what “the Hearing” do and fail to do

Sign languages are as complicated as spoken languages. (Braille is a code for written language, not quite the same thing.)
Sign languages are as complicated as spoken languages. (Braille is a code for written language, not quite the same thing.)

Of course Deaf people noticed the failure of communication.  They always do. However they don’t always have the means to let us know they’re watching. In this instance, the failure is so large and so meaningful that—for a few moments, they have us by the ear. Interpreting is not a show. Interpreters do not perform for the sake of a show. Interpreters interpret to enable communication between people who would otherwise not be able to understand each other.



The Real Value of Interpreting

Here is the script for the lightning talk I gave on June 15, 2013 at Interpret America’s 4th Annual Summit. It was first published by the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) on their weblog and then in the Conference of Interpreter Trainers (CIT) newsletter. The slides continue to receive views too: at Slideshare (static slides),  and Authorstream (animated slides). The video of the talk is contracted to be published by Interpret America.

holding_cloudswaterboathands_SacapuntasI am excited to talk with you today about the real value of interpreting, which is communicating pluralingual relationships into the future. Now, that’s quite a word, pluralingualism, but all it means is two or more languages used at the same time by people interacting with each other.

I’ve been thinking about interpreting in terms of history since the late 1980s, which is when I met Deaf people and began learning American Sign Language. At that time, the American Deaf Community was in the midst of an empowering movement for social change. The Bilingual-Bicultural movement included criticism of signed language interpreters. The criticism focused on what Deaf people called “the machine model” of interpreting. When the profession was established in 1964, it had quickly become dominated by interpreters with weak or no ties to Deaf culture.

Continue reading “The Real Value of Interpreting”

Being Meaningful: Everyday Practices of Resiliency

“We need to practice how we’ll play.”

Practicing how we’ll play means identifying gaps and weaknesses and moving to fill them. Washington DC Fire Chief John Sollers’ message is “We need to practice how we’ll play.” His message is aimed at fellow firefighters and professional first responders who have not yet been in a situation of needing to communicate with and understand a Deaf person who uses American Sign Language. Practicing how we’ll play means learning how to work with ASL interpreters to recognize differences in meaning and co-construct mutual understanding without erasing those differences or artificially forcing a meaning that is not actually understood. Learning how to communicate with the involvement of a third party is a skill that transfers to all kinds of communication situations, including cross-discipline communication in English as well as intercultural communication with non-English speakers of all kinds.

One reason that I have become so interested in the work of emergency management professionals is because Emergency Planners and First Responders are feeling a sense of urgency, on a large system-scale, that suggests the kind of intensity motivating the space program’s original mission to reach the moon. Emergency management professionals care about their work because they understand the relationship of what they do to achieving a larger vision: public safety and the capacity to recover quickly from disasters. This caring was in constant evidence at yesterday’s Whole Community Preparedness Summit sponsored by the Western Region Homeland Security Advisory Council at UMass Amherst. It was also evident in a pilot training that the DC Mayor’s Office on Volunteerism, Serve DC, provided last year at Gallaudet University. One of the instructors for the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) team training, shared with the group how important the experience had been for him, saying that he had learned a lot and that direct interaction with Deaf people using interpreters should be a part of routine training.

“We need to practice how we’ll play.” Continue reading “Being Meaningful: Everyday Practices of Resiliency”

Anti-Deaf Hate Speech #NOTFUNNY

Fox News, Boston affiliate channel 25, and Doug VB Goudie should be sued for hate speech. Seriously. Denying Deaf people the right to information in a language they can understand is violence. Ridicule of their language is an act of violence on a continumm that begins with disregard and ends with people dying because they are excluded from public communication.

Watch the ASL version of this blogentry.

What's happening VB? You just realized the beauty of communication using a visual-gestural human language!
VB discovers American Sign Language – Where has he been?

The Deaf community in Massachusetts has been lobbying for live simultaneous interpretation of emergency press conferences for decades. Finally, Governor Patrick and his staff figure out the logistics of providing quality professional interpretation and VB makes a mockery of it? First, you’d think VB just discovered he has eyes. Welcome to the world of visual noise! Second, what’s wrong with multitasking? You can’t watch and listen to two different things at the same time? Come on, VB, join the modern world. Third, if he has the hots for Deval, he should take it elsewhere. No, VB, “Deval Deval Deval” is not where people’s attention should be during a PUBLIC EMERGENCY ANNOUNCEMENT. People’s attention should be on the information, not the messenger.

American Sign Language performed by a Certified Deaf Interpreter: This is ASL!
Title should read: The best ASL we’ve ever seen!

Which is why it is so insulting that you would even consider asking the ASL interpreter to “tone it down.” You, a non-deaf (“hearing”) person with access to who knows how many communication channels? You can find the information again easily and with no language barrier. Deaf people get one chance to see the information in their own language. And you want to begrudge them the opportunity because you can’t concentrate? Get a grip, man.

Not only does the provision of live simultaneous interpretation during crises give access to the Deaf community to information that you take for granted, it could become a signal to the hearing world that something important is going on and maybe everyone should pay attention too!  Precisely because it isn’t every day that an interpreter shows up on the television screen is a fantastic way to let everyone know there’s a situation where personal safety is at risk.

Watch VB’s news commentary.

Here’s a transcript:

WOMAN: Alright, Welcome back 6:25 this morning. It’s time to “Let it Rip” on Fox 25 morning news, VB joining us in studio here. A treat, 2 days in a row we’ve had him here. And we have Bonnie here as well as we Let It Rip on the press conference. Meant to be a serious thing here, we’re talking about a serious blizzard heading our way. But if you watched this thing yesterday, I…I don’t know how you couldn’t be distracted by everything (laughing) that was going on in the background of this. You had Andrea Cabral in the background who was obviously very warm. And is fanning herself, which by the way, was a very nice fan. Looks like she must bring this with her everywhere
Gene: fashionable
Woman: very fashionable fan…then you have this (laughs) sign language person, who is very, very animated and VB I think you said it best before, “she’s at like an 11 and maybe she needs to bring it down to like a 6”.
VB: Look, at one point during this thing, my wife and I were like not listening at all to the governor and we were trying to caption HER. Because this, this stuff is so over the top and so exaggerated. Maybe it is, I don’t even know, but from my viewpoint it was. I was just fascinated on her the whole time, and I don’t know what I was supposed to do because I wasn’t listening to the Governor.
Woman: (laughing)
Bonnie: You know what? This came up with Hurricane Sandy too because the interpreter who was at Mayor Blumberg’s press conference was also very, very animated. It actually prompted a lot of articles. There was actually one in ‘The Atlantic’ answering the question “why are these interpreters so animated?”
Woman: They did a whole SNL skit on it, remember? (laughing)
VB: (laughing) what is that whole motion there? (laughing) Look at that!?
Gene: (laughing)
Bonnie: Yeah, you know but other than the hand motions, their facial expressions actually modify what is going on. So, if there’s going to be snow, then they can say ‘there’s going to be a lot of snow’. Or its ‘really bad snow’ or ‘you need to hurry’. So, I think that the dramatic interpretation doesn’t bother me at all. I mean, you listen. These people, have…have the pressure of having to translate, on the spot and make sure they capture it dramatically so that people can understand. So if you find it distracting, I don’t know, just focus on the governor. Listen, walk away. you can hear, so VB walk away from the TV and just listen
Gene: (talking over Bonnie) I’ve seen others that have done it and haven’t been that distracting,
Woman: yeah…I have too.
Gene: So I don’t buy that, I don’t buy that at all. I mean, listen, I know she has important information to put out there. And to people who have issues and need that service that’s being provided, but I think it could be done so in a way…that’s all you’re talking about this morning, you know? The Governor is passing along some important information…and you’re trying to listen…and you know, there’s so many other things going on how could you NOT be distracted by it all?
Woman: We’ve obviously seen it at other press conferences..
Gene: (talking over) It’s all everyone is talking about, twitter has all these comments about it
Woman: hashtags for people who are all of a sudden stealing the show, and no one was tweeting any of the information that was coming out of the press conference.
VB: I guarantee you when Richard Davey walked off that stage, whoever greeted him, the first thing Davey says “ Was it me, or was that really distracting?” (woman laughing) Andrea Cabral is fanning him as much as she’s fanning herself. (woman lauging) And second of all, you can see Davey periodically looking out the corner of his eye like “wow! I didn’t see that one coming” and if HE’s distracted? We’re going to be distracted! Let’s say this was 9/11…YOU CAN’T HAVE THIS! There are times, when …
Woman: right, right
VB: its gotta absolutely be focused on the speaker and that was the LAST thing I was focused on here.
Woman: yeah, that’s true.
Gene: right
Woman: Alright, well MYFOXBOSTON.COM or our facebook page if you’d like to weigh in on this we’d love to hear from you…



Sign Language Interpreting and Emergency Management

Outrage in the Deaf community over the ridicule of American Sign Language.

Language for the Eyes

It has only taken decades of advocacy and complaints to the FCC, FEMA, and State governments for public officials to respond to Deaf Americans who rely on sign language for communication.

DeafNation, emphasizing language, culture and pride, expresses “dismay and concern” to Chelsea Handler.

The outburst of public response to professional simultaneous interpretation of a signed language during Hurricane Sandy reveals an astonishing range of exoticism, prejudice, and basic ignorance of a vibrant linguistic culture flourishing despite generations of institutionalized discrimination.

The robust capacity of American Sign Language to communicate in the dimension of sight has apparently blown the minds of sound-centric “hearing people.” None of the media coverage of the emergency interpreting by Lydia Callis gets all of the details right. Most of the mainstream discourse focuses on Ms Callis’ diction, minimizing the essential purpose of emergency access to communication through simultaneous interpretation. This is why the Deaf community is furious. Seth Gerlis explains in a special report from i Deaf News: “Access to communication during an emergency is very important to the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community.” A petition demanding an apology for an offensive skit by Late Show comedian Chelsea Handler explains, “We are thankful to have her to interpret for us.”

Professional sign language interpreters are also offended. Bill Moody explains:

We don’t want to be stars; we just want Deaf people to know what is going on! But [Lydia Callis] should have had a partner to help her when she got tired, help her with local place names, and show that interpreters work in teams. I do not appreciate the parodies of her interpreting work which have proliferated around the internet. They are meant to be in good fun, but they indicate the kind of bias against a language which uses facial expressions and body movement as a part of its grammar. Our work as interpreters is not funny. It is serious business. Yes, of course, we like to laugh at ourselves and at life, but sign language itself should not be the brunt of jokes.

Insider vs Outsider Humor

I appreciate Bill’s point that sign language itself should not be the object of ridicule, and the Deaf community’s reaction is also justified. It would be different if, for instance, deaf children had reliable exposure to adult ASL role models every single school day and deaf adults had consistent provision of simultaneous interpretation when needed to participate as an equal employee in the workplace. On the other hand, becoming the butt of public humor is a powerful indicator of social acceptance. What if the Lydia moment generates a turning point in the provision of simultaneous interpretation and ASL-based education because hearing people realize they do care about the lives and experiences of the Deaf?

In contrast with Chelsea Handler’s outsider humor, another parody offers insight into some of the subtexts of simultaneous interpretation. The resistance of hearing people to actually use interpreting to establish meaningful relationships with Deaf individuals results in a skewed kind of pair bonding between deaf people and interpreters. Unless and until hearing people begin to realize that there is more to communication than words of information, misunderstandings are bound to continue. In an emergency situation, this could result in the loss of life, health, or valuable property. A spoof by Frank Panda, Armando Riesco, and Shirley Rumierk could be understood as  a cultural critique of the misguided fascination of hearing people with the language of ASL rather than to the potential relationship being enacted with deaf people. Ineffective communication is the usual result of such dismissive behavior, despite the outstanding skills and best intentions of professional interpreters.

Emergency Management Interpreting

Officials charged with public warnings need to comprehend why English-text captioning, note writing, and the use of volunteers who may have learned some sign language is insufficient:  protecting Deaf Americans during disasters requires embedding emergency management interpreters at all levels of operations.

Callis was great, but not because she was so lively and animated. She was great because she was performing a seriously difficult mental task—simultaneously listening and translating on the spot—in a high-pressure, high-stakes situation. Sure, she was expressive, but that’s because she was speaking a visual language. Signers are animated not because they are bubbly and energetic, but because sign language uses face and body movements as part of its grammar.

It is gratifying to see some governors and television stations finally get public warning communication right by hiring professional interpreters and keeping the interpreter onscreen so the Deaf audience can benefit from the emergency communication access to information. The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and Governor Deval Patrick did Mayor Bloomberg one better by hiring a Certified Deaf Interpreter to generate a localized interpretation (something Ms Callis was unable to do, working alone and being relatively new to the New York City scene). A recent Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training at Gallaudet University demonstrated how crucial it is in a crisis to use local interpreters who are familiar with the place-specific terminology and references. One of the CERT instructors, Chief John Sollers, told the group how important the experience had been for him, explaining that he had learned a lot and, in particular, emphasizing that using interpreters for emergency communication between First Responders with Deaf people should be a part of routine training: “We  need to practice how we’ll play.”

Providing effective public warnings is the first, most obvious stage of integrating sign language interpreters into the infrastructure of emergency management. The next stage involves recognizing and treating professional sign language interpreters as peers within the community of first responders. Angela Kaufman (ADA Coordinator, City of Los Angeles Department on Disability) and Rick Pope (GEMINI Project) proposed the establishment of sign language interpreter strike teams at FEMA’s Getting Real II: Promising Practices in Inclusive Emergency Management for the Whole Community in 2011.

Moving Forward into an Era of Climate Healing

NBC’s Brian Williams talked with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Williams suggested that a vast public works project was needed and asked, “Is New York the New Amsterdam?” Cuomo did not disagree. He answered, “As I said kiddingly the other day, we having a 100-year-flood every two years now…we have not seen a problem like this, a flood like this, in our generation. It’s a new reality for us and it’s one we are going to have to deal with.

All of these problems are interrelated. We need an ingenious strategy that insists upon linking social justice with the economic infrastructure. Weather has always served a unifying purpose for Americans – it has given us a safe topic upon which to find common ground despite every imaginable kind of social, cultural, and religions difference. Emergency response costs have skyrocketed over the last five years. The rate and severity of natural disasters is absolutely unprecedented. The vulnerability of disenfranchised and minority populations is no longer the only risk to the stability of our society. By making the commitment and dedicating ourselves to extending the reach of emergency preparedness and response to everyone, entirely new career fields can be created – putting Americans back to work and reinvigorating the economy. This is necessary in order to usher in a new equality along with taking up responsibility for minimizing – and eventually reversing – the effects of global warming.

A Deaf CERT to Serve DC

In two weeks, a training for Deaf individuals to create or join a Community Emergency Response Team will occur at Gallaudet University in the District of Colombia. There are still some slots available for deaf and hard-of-hearing people associated with Gallaudet or in the larger DC Deaf community. Sign-up now through the Preparedness for All webblog: Gallaudet Hosts CERT training.

Next week, a training for Deaf individuals to create or join a Community Emergency Response Team will occur at Gallaudet University in the District of Colombia.  The special training is hosted by the Mayor’s Office on Volunteerism, Serve DC, and is described in more detail at the Preparedness for All weblog: Gallaudet Hosts CERT training.

Planning for this pilot training began in earnest several months ago with an observation of a drill using moulage to simulate extensive injuries to victims. That drill brought some already trained CERTs into interaction with some of the District of Columbia’s Fire Department personnel. There are rules and procedures for how volunteers are included in emergency response, especially for large scale disasters.  First responders work with CERTs so that people who want to be able to volunteer in case of a disaster will have already gone through special training that establishes a basic level of skills and understanding about how they fit into the entire system of emergency response and recovery.

The average person does not usually worry about a crisis until it happens (which is why they are called emergencies – they emerge, popping up suddenly, often without warning).  Volunteers are vital to emergency response efforts, but untrained volunteers create a burden that the system has to accommodate on the spot. While just-in-time training is sometimes available, even that requires set-up and delivery.  If just-in-time training is not ready, volunteers wanting to know what to do and how to help divert time and energy from activities that allow First Responders to quickly re-establish control and reduce the chances for loss of life and damage to property.

Gallaudet’s Deaf community is taking a big step in preparing volunteers to be ready and able to help constructively if an emergency happens on campus. Participants in the training earn certification and receive a backpack with some emergency gear. The CERT certification is a national-level qualification to participate in any CERT, which can involve creating a new one or joining an established CERTs in your neighborhood, at your children’s school, in faith-based communities, even at the Deaf club.

There are still some slots available for deaf and hard-of-hearing people associated with Gallaudet or in the larger DC Deaf community. Sign-up now:

Introduction to Inter-Role Dialogue

Many interpreters are familiar with the idea of intercultural or intergroup communication, which takes the identity of participants as important to meaning. . This workshop extends the idea of “identity” to the different roles individuals have in any communication situation. We’ll explore the case of emergency management interpreting, where First Responders have very clear priorities that may not coincide with what Deaf and hard-of-hearing people believe they need. Likewise, Deaf and hard-of-hearing people have express communication needs that may not coincide with what First Responders believe they can accommodate.

I’ll be presenting this workshop at the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) Region II Conference in Fort Lauderdale, FL.

Workshop Description:

Many interpreters are familiar with the idea of intercultural or intergroup communication, which takes the identity of participants as important to meaning. This workshop extends the idea of “identity” to the different roles individuals have in any communication situation. While keeping factors of gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, religion and other cultural dimensions in mind, the frame of reference that interlocutors bring to interpreted communication based on their role in the interaction is a crucial consideration. As an example and in order to practice skills, we’ll explore the case of emergency management interpreting, where First Responders have very clear priorities that may not coincide with what Deaf and hard-of-hearing people believe they need. Likewise, Deaf and hard-of-hearing people have express communication needs that may not coincide with what First Responders believe they can accommodate. This workshop plays with the idea of an interpreter’s role zone (Lee, 2010) as a pivot point within the larger mission of response and recovery. Developing interpreter competence in shifting alignments (on the basis of the relation between interlocutor’s specific roles and the overall context) is a skill that transfers to all interpreted interactions.

Educational Objectives:

Steph at work: presenting on "Dialogue under Occupation" at Lebanese American University, Beirut (Photo by Razvan Sibii)
Steph at work: presenting on "Dialogue under Occupation" at Lebanese American University, Beirut (Photo by Razvan Sibii)

At the conclusion of the workshop, participants will be able to

  1. name at least three ways of understanding role,
  2. identify the context of an interpreted interaction and describe how the context shapes interlocutor role choices,
  3. talk about the interplay of functional roles in a group with intercultural dynamics arising from defining role on the basis of identity,
  4. describe Goffman’s concept of footing and how it is relevant to interpreted interaction, and
  5. explain the grounded task of an emergency management interpreter.

Greenfield Coffee, Greenfield MA

Emergency Warning and Community Response: The Edge of Technology and Culture

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.

Emergency Communication and the Deaf

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.  How do we go about in making sure that this audience group gets the same information about an emergency or crisis like all of our other audiences?

~ Karen Freberg, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor in Strategic Communication at the University of Louisville

Does the Deaf Community need sign language interpretation for emergencies?
Does the Deaf Community Need ASL Interpretation for Emergencies?

Long before today’s nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) advocated for improved accessibility to emergency warnings with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In response, FEMA made a video with American Sign Language explaining that old technology prevents full communication access to the Deaf and asking Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing people not to worry because, “this is only a test.”

Exclusive design?

However this is not “just” any old test. According to the Chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, “This test is vital to ensuring that the EAS, the primary alerting system available to the American public, works as designed” (emphasis added).  Chief James A Barnett explains, “the EAS is a media communications-based alerting system designed to transmit emergency alerts and warnings to the American public . . . providing vital information in crises, and the system is designed to work when nothing else does” (emphasis added).

Only One Way of Communicating?

My career as an American Sign Language/English interpreter, along with graduate study in the field of Communication, gives me reason to wonder at the insistence on a one-size-fits-all method of communicating emergency warnings.  Of course this makes sense from the topmost levels of the communication hierarchy, but at some point the local takes over.  Is text enough?  Are captions (assuming they are even provided!) adequate for catching the attention of a Deaf person in order to warn them of an impending crisis? Why not supplement outdated technology with live interpretation?

Getting Real – or Postponing It?

The national Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) has a Working Group developing a Standard Practice Paper on Emergency Interpreting. While the draft is under administrative review, efforts to properly train interpreters for integration into emergency planning and response were begun at a Florida State RID workshop in October. Meanwhile, information to guide Emergency Managers and First Responders in working with Sign Language Interpreter strike teams was presented in September at Getting Real II: Promising Practices in Inclusive Emergency Management for the Whole Community.

Deaf Tweet-In to Teach about communication access!

“One final note, for the communities that are deaf or hard of hearing, there is a special evaluation of how emergency alert information is transmitted to these communities. Emergency agencies are being encouraged to use the hashtag #demx during this EAS test so that social media can be evaluated for its effectiveness in reaching populations which may not hear the emergency alert.” ~ Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency

#demx introduced a few days before the test
#demx introduced a few days before the test

Why do Deaf Americans have to keep waiting for the majority to decide to protect everyone?  Why are Deaf Americans being told – yet again – to wait until … when?  The obvious, logical, and easy solution to inadequate captioning technology is to have sign language interpreters on contract for emergency interpreting. Despite years of advocacy from Deaf individuals within their communities and organizations, as well as at the institutional level by the National Association of the Deaf, provision of communication access is apparently such a low priority that the first national test is going to happen without any backup plan.

What are Deaf people to do if (when) there is a real emergency?

Where’s the ASL?

But maybe I assume sign language interpretation is the answer.  I designed an action research study to learn what the Deaf community needs.  The lead time has been extremely short, and the Deaf community may be experiencing “EAS fatigue”, however some traction on Twitter from social media users in emergency management and a loose network of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals suggests that a useful conversation may occur today about creating a warning system that effectively includes this neglected population.

Please read the Guidelines for Tweeting to #demx and follow @Deaf_Emergency, @stephjoke and @XpressiveHandz