Emergencies and disasters profoundly affect thousands of individuals around the world each year. Roughly 5% of the world’s population have some form of deafness, it has been well documented that the deaf and other disabled individuals often experience the most difficulty when it comes to preparing for and recovering from emergencies and natural disasters. 

The past few weeks in the United States have brought a serious hurricane season.  First, Hurricane Harvey reaped disaster on the Gulf Coast of the United States in the Houston, Texas area. Then a second powerful storm, Hurricane Irma, has brought havoc to the whole state of Florida. These deadly storms have taken everything from many people and devastated all in their path with winds, rain, storm surges resulting in floods and other destruction. The situation must be even more challenging for the 6% of people who are profoundly deaf and do not hear the warnings on 24 hour television. 

In the US the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), provides federal support to the states and local governments when these natural disasters occur. Unfortunately, storms such as Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita and others have repeatedly demonstrated that the concerns of people with disabilities and others with access and functional needs in emergency situations are frequently overlooked or minimized.  Realizing the great urgency that surrounds the need to respond to the disabled community’s concerns in all phases of emergency management, including mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery, better and effective communications must be provided. The National Council on Disability (NCD) has played a critical role in promoting successful disability policies regarding emergency management through the publication of information and policy recommendations.

Following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) implemented changes to the emergency alert requirements that paralleled NCD’s recommendations in the 2005 report Saving Lives: Including People with Disabilities in Emergency Planning.  NCD was given responsibilities in the 2006 Post-Katrina Emergency Reform Act. As part of these responsibilities, NCD participated in two events that illustrated the need to place additional emphasis on effective communication. In September 2011, NCD held an all-day meeting with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) regional disability integration specialists, at which they discussed the current state of emergency management as well as barriers and facilitators to the inclusion of people with disabilities. Later, in September 2011, NCD cosponsored FEMA’s Getting Real II conference, which highlighted promising practices in inclusive emergency management. During both meetings, critical issues related to effective communication were raised. These key conferences identified the barriers, facilitators, and successful practices in the provision of effective emergency-related communications to all populations, especially people with disabilities. The participants also examined the current state of affairs concerning the accessibility of emergency-related communications; reviewed the enforcement of disability laws and regulations as they pertain to effective communications before, during, and after emergencies. Information on the experiences and perceptions of people with disabilities as they relate to emergency-related communications were also considered. Based on these findings, NCD put forth a series of recommendations for policy makers, federal partners, and emergency managers. While the conference found barriers to effective communication across various areas of disability, those most affecting deaf and hard of hearing people included the following:

● Televised emergency announcements by officials that did not include American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters.
● Inaccessible emergency notification systems.
● Inaccessible evacuation maps.
● Shelters at which no one is able to communicate with people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
● 911 systems that do not allow people with disabilities to contact them via text based communication.

 The NCD research examined communication before, during, and after emergencies for people with sensory disabilities (deaf, hard of hearing, blind, low vision, deaf-blind, and speech disabilities) as well as people with mobility, intellectual, developmental, and psychiatric disabilities. The study documented successful practices and identified facilitators as well as barriers to providing effective emergency-related communication.  Additionally, it reviewed the enforcement of current disability laws and regulations as they pertain to effective communication before, during, and after emergencies as well as surveyed the emergency management community to identify challenges and best practices for effective communications for people with disabilities. 

These new policies were in effect for the recent hurricanes and in the aftermath of Harvey and Irma time will tell us how the NCD recommendations facilitated the evacuation and life saving operations.  While there may still be mistakes made in these operations, FEMA and the NCD have greatly assisted the disabled by adding mandatory communication for those that are disabled.  While the responses and government actions may not have been perfect during the recent storms, it is felt that the disabled had a better chance of obtaining the information necessary to facilitate their survival.  And, moreover, there are now feedback channels to continue to improve these programs.



FEMA (2006). Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act.  Emergency Management Institute.  Retrieved September 11, 2017.

FEMA 2011). 2011 Getting Real: Promising Practices in Inclusive Emergency Management for the Whole Community.  Retrieved September 11, 2017. 

National Council on Disability (2014). Effective Communications for People with Disabilities: Before, During, and After Emergencies.  Retrieved September 11, 2017.

National Council on Disability (2005). Saving Lives:  Including People with Disabilities in Emergency Planning.  Retrieved September 11, 2017.



A few years ago at Hearing International we did a post regarding air bags and their effect on hearing.  That report was primarily about how these miracle devices work and save lives with a comment about the impulse noise issues surrounding the their deployment. 

Among people in accidents with airbags deploying, Price (2007) suggests that 17 percent suffer permanent hearing loss.  Additionally, his research also suggests that the injury is greater with the windows rolled up as having car windows rolled up, whereas deployed airbags are actually less hazardous to the ear than rolled-down windows. Price feels that the higher pressure generated in the closed cabin actually prevents greater damage to the ear. The pressure causes a displacement in the middle ear that stiffens the stapes, a small bone outside the inner ear. This stiffening limits the transmission of energy to the inner ear, where hearing damage takes place. In airbag experiments where the cabin is completely sealed and pressure is even higher, hearing damage is reduced even further.  This interesting concept is similar to the stimulation of the acoustic reflex prior to a crash deployed in some Mercedes Benz vehicles.  Price’s study only included cars sold in the United States with front and side airbags. Under U.S. regulations, American cars must have larger, more powerful airbags than cars sold in places like Europe. “Cars with smaller airbags sold in other parts of the world would likely pose less auditory danger when tested under identical circumstances, Price said.”

The Takata Recall

Recently vehicles made by 19 different automakers have been recalled to replace frontal airbags on the driver’s side or passenger’s side, or both in what National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA)  has called “the largest and most complex safety recall in U.S. history.” The problem is that airbags are made by major parts supplier Takata, which started out as a Japanese textile manufacturer more than 80 years ago and later came to specialize in seat belts and other auto safety equipment.  These defective Takata air bags mostly installed between 2002 and 2015 could explode, injuring or even killing the occupants of the vehicle.  The company’s faulty airbag inflators affected by heat wings and moisture can blast shrapnel into drivers and passengers, have resulted in the recall of tens of millions of vehicles and been linked to 11 deaths in the U.S. and several others elsewhere.  While audiologists are concerned about the 150-170 dB noise exposure from air bag deployment, the real concern lies in how the airbags are meant to inflate when they are activated. The defective ones use a compound called ammonium nitrate to assist the bag to go from its very compact form inside your steering wheel or door panel to something big enough to protect your head or body in a collision. The compound, however, can break down and become unstable when your car is exposed to moisture or temperature swings over time, leading to a risk of explosion.  This has caused the largest automotive recall in US history and the June 25, 2017 filing of bankruptcy by Takata.  Hopefully, this tragedy will lead to better designs that do not employ rocket fuel and shrapnel for deployment.  You can click here to see of your vehicle is due for replacement air bags.

The Future of Air Bag Future & New Designs

In the immediate future, it appears that there will be significant developments in “active safety,” such as pre-collision systems and lane departure warnings, to prevent accidents, rather than “passive safety,” such as airbags and car crumple zones, that minimize injuries during an accident.  The sensor, processing and “by-wire” technologies have advanced very quickly over the last few years, says John Hanson, national manager of advanced technology business communications for Toyota. This lets manufacturers develop a wide variety of high-level driver assistance features to improve crash avoidance or crash mitigation, Hanson says.  Looking further out, it is predicted that automakers will begin to fit forward-looking sensors that work in concert with airbags, such as those now incorporated in the new Mercedes Benz vehicles that stimulate the Acoustic Reflex prior to the air bag.  Montoya (2015) indicates that in the near future their may be airbags that deploy just before the crash, with even less energy than they do now,” he says. This will help reduce injuries from airbag deployment even further.  There may even be air bag type seat belts as well.

 Another innovative research concept is the Aeromorph that takes origami structures made with inflatables from various materials. They introduce a universal bending mechanism that creates programmable shape-changing behaviors with paper, plastics and fabrics.  Researchers have developed a software tool that generates this bending mechanism for a given geometry, simulates its transformation, and exports the compound geometry as digital fabrication files. A custom heat-sealing head that can be mounted in a useable “air bag” format precisely designed fabricate a transforming material according to the needs.  Still research to be conducted on this one…..

Whichever concept is designed it will not use rocket fuel inflators and expose the occupants to shrapnel.  Additionally, the new concepts are much quieter and will not expose the occupants to 150- to 170 dB of impulse noise.



Montoya, R. (2015).  The Future of Car Airbags.  Retrieved September 5, 2017.

Newswise (2007). Car Airbags Will Cause Permanent Hearing Loss in 17 Percent. Retrieved September 5, 2017. 

Phen, R., Dowdy, M., Ebbeler, D., Kim, E-H., Moore, N., & Van Zandt, Y., (1998). Advanced Air Bag Technology Assessment, Final Report.  National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and
     National Aeronautics and Space Administration prepared by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California.  Retrieved September 4, 2017.

Price, R. (2007).  Impulse Noise-Hearing Conservation’s Poison Gas?  National Hearing Conservation Association’s 32nd annual hearing conference, Savanah, Ga. Retrieved September 5, 2017.