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Sirens sound, yet deaf people left standing

Source(s):  United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction – Regional Office for the Americas and the Caribbean (UNDRR AM)

By Andy McElroy

Geneva - Lydia Callis became an unlikely star of Superstorm Sandy as the sign-language interpreter during New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s televised press conferences on the storm.

Time magazine reported in October 2012: “During Bloomberg’s televised press conferences on the storm — delivered in his standard business-like fashion — Callis translated his words with enthusiasm and passion. In fact, her presence at press conferences has provided New Yorkers with what New York magazine described as 'a legitimate reason to smile'."

The magazine continued: "She not only was able to translate the important words of the mayor to anxious viewers across the country but also provided clear, coherent and animated explanations to millions of deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans."

One of the reasons Ms Callis' wonderful – and probably lifesaving – service became such a hit was that it is so rare for public leaders and disaster managers to take account before, during and after crises of the specific challenges of people who are hearing impaired or deaf.

The 'normal' situation is captured beautifully in the above image by deaf artist Katja Tissi: imagine the situation of a deaf person when the sirens are sounding; everybody is running for his or her life, but deaf people are unaware of what is happening.

Mr Beat Kleeb, an accessibility expert at the World Federation of the Deaf, said that the largest group of persons with disabilities are the hearing impaired and deaf persons but as the disability is invisible it is often the most overlooked.

But there is encouraging evidence of hearing impaired and deaf people being more included in disaster management planning.

In Georgia, USA, two men, Mr John McDonald and Mr Aaron Shoemaker are training sign-language interpreters to be first responders and to be able to help hearing impaired and deaf people impacted by disasters.

Their Georgia Emergency Management Interpreting Initiative (GEMINI) was prompted after a tornado smashed through Adairsville, Georgia, on 30 January 2013, and emergency responders left behind a deaf woman and her two children.

GEMINI has been around for several years now, but has never been up front and personal until a deaf person was directly affected by the disaster in Adairsville," Mr McDonald told the local Calhoun Times newspaper.

"She was left behind. They went around knocking on doors; they didn't answer so they put a red 'X' on the door and they moved on; well, a lot of people don't realize when you spray paint a building like that, it is permission to bulldoze without double checking."

It was not until Mr McDonald and Mr Shoemaker arrived and briefed rescue workers that just knocking on doors searching for survivors was not enough that the crews went back through the impact zone and found the woman and her two children.

Mr McDonald and Mr Shoemaker, both certified interpreters for the deaf, were able to communicate with the woman to get her the help she needed.

The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) and partners have launched the first-ever survey of people living with disabilities and disasters to mark the 2013 International Day for Disaster Reduction on 13 October.

Have Your Say! If you're living with a disability or you are a caregiver, take our survey and share your thoughts on living with disasters. The survey is available here in several languages.

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  • Publication date 29 Aug 2013

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