3 Top Reasons Why Deaf People Face Obstacles in Emergencies

Click here for ASL Transcript.

If I said “emergency” what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? My immediate thought is an active shooter situation or the day I went into the ER with symptoms of a stroke. One of my kids thinks of earthquakes and fires, both of which we’ve experienced. Another kid said the food shortage of 2021. Fa’real! We’ve all experienced an ‘emergency’ of some sort. It may have affected just you or maybe your local community, state, nation or even the world. It’s often adrenaline shocking crazy moments that can be quite scary as you face the unknown. But what’s the difference between hearing people and deaf people experiencing an emergency? 

Before we dive into addressing the difference (or reasons why deaf face obstacles in emergencies), let’s briefly talk about why it’s important to understand. As I was developing the article, I approached several deaf colleagues and one word that continually came up was ‘empathy’. Yes, they want these obstacles to be recognized and solved, but through the process, empathy is what they want and need. Think about ways you can show empathy during an emergency.  

(Share in the comments what that could look like – or better yet, ask a deaf person what they wish it looked like, then share it below.)



Empathy [ em-puh-thee ]:

Merriam Webster: The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.


Psychology Today: [Empathy] involves experiencing another person’s point of view, rather than just one’s own, and enables prosocial or helping behaviors that come from within, rather than being forced.


Greater Good Magazine: “Cognitive empathy,” sometimes called “perspective taking,” refers to our ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions.




Now let’s address the 3 top reasons why deaf people face obstacles in emergencies. I’m referring to WHY they face obstacles – not that they actually face them (because we all do!). 


Ok, before we move on, I feel the need to put this out in the open. I witnessed a hearing person say to a deaf person, “Stop playing the deaf card”. These obstacles are not a deaf card. Let’s get that straight. They are real and happen often. This comment was ignorant and ignorance really isn’t bliss, and does in fact hurt. Let’s change this thinking. Since you’re here, I have a real good feeling that change is in the making! (Thank you!!)


Reason 1: Chaos

As I’m sure you well know, emergency chaos is the epitome of crazy, high energy that can be incredibly frightening. So why is it different for a deaf person? I’ll be honest, how to put this into words is difficult as the dynamics of each situation are vast in the experiences, the language, the person, the people involved, etc. But imagine emergency chaos. What does that look like? Now imagine the chaos without sound. Try to communicate with someone? Are they calm or chaotic? Do they stop and talk to you or show you a ‘scary face’ and leave you to talk with someone else or find protection for themselves? If they talk with you, what do they say? Sometimes they frantically mouth the words “I’ll tell you later” as they motion their hand as if trying to tell you ‘down the road’ or ‘later’, and more often they just wave their hands all around, talk fast and look real scared, and you stand there without a clue of what they are saying but just know something is no bueno (bad), maybe even really, super no bueno (very bad). Do you need to hide? Run? Pack? Leave? Someone dying? Why? Where? What do they know that you don’t? You’re left with “What is happening already!?!”


That ER visit I mentioned earlier was scary. I couldn’t move half of my body and it was becoming worse at a rapid pace. Amid the chaos of nurses and doctors rushing around me, I started to cry. More than my symptoms, it was the running around of people in chaos that really scared me. Then there was my Deaf husband. He stood off to the side because of the crazy nature of the situation. An in-person interpreter hadn’t arrived (never did) and the connection to a remote interpreting service (VRI)was having issues. Although I could hear, I was unable to relay to him what was going on. The staff would turn to him to write or mouth a couple of words and then turn to address another staff member and then leave him. Hardly a word written on paper and barely readable mouths was all he had to figure out what was going on with me, his wife. My experience wasn’t small at the moment, but think of other emergencies … all different types and severities. Same thing, every time. 


What solves this obstacle of chaos? I think there could be many. But let’s start with empathy. What can you do to show empathy during chaos? Empathy is an action word. It’s not just “I understand” – it has to go deeper. What can you do? 


(Let’s help each other, share in the comments.)


Reason 2: Communication 

Communication, or the lack thereof, is a real problem. What and how a deaf person needs communication is different, because they are all different. But you know what my favorite words are, right? ASK and LISTEN. Yup! Keep those words close to you! ASK the deaf people you work with, your neighbors, your clients or patients, whoever, ask them, “If there was an emergency (or it’s happening right now) how is it best to communicate with you?” Then make it happen. If they say an interpreter, that is your number one priority. If it’s writing, get paper and a pen ready and take the time to write. It doesn’t hurt to get a primary preference and a backup preference. Because sometimes their top preference is honestly not available (but keep trying to make it happen) – but in the meantime, you have a backup. 


Here’s the thing. It’s so hard to take the time to communicate during chaos, it is! But deaf people need communication… just like you!!! The dark is the worst place to be left in, especially when it’s due to a lack of communication, making the chaos of an emergency even worse. 


(What else can you do? If you know a deaf person, ask them and share those ideas in the comments.)


Reason 3: Cellular Structure

This is not referring to cell towers, your cell phone or even your body cells. This is talking about the system we live in, the core structure of our society, the infrastructure of emergencies and working with deaf individuals. What needs to happen? Without a doubt, we need to improve and implement systems and processes appropriate to meet the needs of deaf individuals, including: communicating with, working with, processing information for, providing safety precautions to, educating on preparedness, etc. Over the last couple of years, some movement on a couple of these have begun. But we’re still very behind in this when it comes to inclusion of deaf people during emergency situations.


Do I have an example? Why yes I do! One of my staff (Deaf) took part in a community emergency training. This person was to act like themselves (a deaf person), who had an injury to their leg. This event was to train emergency personnel and community volunteers on how to proceed during an emergency (as they worked with people with various disabilities). At the end of the training, the trainee (professional and volunteer) should have escorted or helped each person in the event get to safety. Guess what happened to this deaf person? The emergency trainees who approached (at different times) didn’t know what to do, so they left them there. (Some even got upset thinking the deaf person was pretending to not be able to communicate!?!) They moved on from this person without even attempting to try anything. It was just “Next!” 


That’s a great analogy of what’s happening in our cellular structure (core, bottom-line, basis of basics). ‘Leave them there’ is all we got?! We can do better.


How can we, as a society, learn their needs and be at their side, as neighbors and associates, rather than perceiving them as a thing to be left behind? Here are my initial two cents: We need to invite deaf individuals into the conversation with those who make changes (all parts of society). Then start devising plans to improve our systems and processes. 


(Where do we start? Are you committed? How? Share in the comments.) 


Wrap Up:

The Chaos, Communication and Cellular Structure are obstacles that come with emergencies and they will always be there. How we act and react to these obstacles, with those who are deaf, needs to be different. Let’s make a new and improved way of living that’s inclusive, even in emergency situations.


Access Simplified is committed to being at the forefront of change. But we can’t and shouldn’t do it alone. Join us to make it happen. 


Access Simplified is a leader in the deaf and hard of hearing accessibility industry, having created an offline communications access app. 



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