Be Prepared: A Motto for Persons with Hearing Loss

Gael Hannan
August 30, 2011

Do you think bad guys know about the ADA?  I mean, if I asked, do you think they would remove the mask, so I could read their lips?

Notice to boy scouts of the world: I have ripped off your ‘rule to live by’ and it’s now part of my manifesto for living successfully with hearing loss.

Be prepared! The recent emergency planning for Hurricane Irene reminded me of how people with hearing loss (PWHL) can be isolated and endangered in any crisis, small or large. In this case, information was available on captioned television, 24/7, advising prevention and safety procedures for people in the storm’s furious path.

But most dangerous situations don’t come with such a long CNN warning period.  Sometimes we need to know in an instant, a blink of the eye, what to do or where to get information that will keep us safe. I mean, Communication Challenges-R-Us!  Every day we face some sort of barrier, large or small, dangerous or just irritating.

I’m not preaching paranoia here, but I have been in some very dangerous situations which would have been better handled or even prevented if I had been prepared.  Some situations, I have successfully anticipated, while others have not actually happened – so far – but I worry about them anyway.

Unprepared: I was living in an Australian town that was flattened by a cyclone on Christmas Day.  The only communication, before and after the disaster, was by radio and I was totally dependent on other people to re-voice everything they heard.  During the cyclone, as we huddled for safety, the noise was so beyond-loud that I couldn’t understand what anyone said, although I clearly heard the roof blowing off. At a refugee station during the post-storm evacuation, I was separated from my friends.  Because I couldn’t hear the authorities calling my name, I was almost left behind.  (Not unlike being paged at a busy airport.)

Prepared:  I don’t understand in-flight announcements, because the little TV screens don’t carry live captioning.  I now self-identify as hard of hearing, either when booking or checking in.  The flight attendant crouches by my seat and asks how she can help me; I let her know that if there’s an emergency, please come and tell me directly.  If I do forget to self-identify and find myself in an exit row, I ask to be moved.  Even though there’s extra leg room, in the event of emergency evacuation, you don’t want people pushing you from behind as you scream, “What am I supposed to do, again?”

Prepared:  When I check into a hotel, I let them know that I have hearing loss, and make sure they mark it down.  I give them further instructions:  “If there’s a fire, I won’t hear alarms.  So your first task is to send the biggest, handsomest firefighter to break down my door and carry me to safety.”  Still waiting.

Sort-of-Prepared:  One of my biggest fears is that I’ll be in a bank, and bad guys burst in, wearing masks.  What if I misinterpret what they say?  That’s beyond dangerous.  Do you think bad guys know about the ADA?  I mean, if I asked, do you think they would remove the mask, so I could read their lips?  Huh?  I’ve started banking online.

Be prepared!  As PWHL, we have to think ahead, to anticipate communication barriers. It’s the smart thing to do.

  1. Great points, Gael. I’m so sorry you had such a frightening experience after the cyclone. Perhaps, however, that terrible experience ended up having a positive effect of emphasizing the importance of doing everything reasonably possible to be assertive and proactive.

    My own experience during 9/11 emphasized for me the importance of thinking ahead and advocating for access. My new workplace didn’t have a captioned TV on 9/11/2011, even
    though it was an organization for people with hearing loss! Everyone in the office ended up standing around a small TV with no captions, and it was quite frustrating not to be able to
    understand the commenters, both on the TV and in the office, since we were busy looking at the TV. Millions of people with hearing loss around the country probably had similar experiences of feeling deprived of even more information than everyone else.

    In addition to realizing the important need for us to be proactive on an individual basis, I think it’s also important to realize when there’s a need for system change—when government agencies and businesses need to be educated to do more to be prepared to address the predictable needs of people with hearing loss as well as those of people with other kinds of
    disabilities. For example, 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina emphasized the importance of advocating for more communication about disasters and crises in a way that’s accessible to people with hearing loss—and which would also help many other people who might not have access to radio or television at the time of the disaster.

    We still have a long way to go, but there are more mechanisms available now that can help, like smartphones, email or text alerts or tweets from government agencies and news media,
    and social media like Facebook. One problem, though, is that the monthly costs for smartphones are expensive and can be out of reach economically for many deaf or hard of hearing people. I think there needs to be much more recognition by governments that deaf or hard of hearing people can be particularly vulnerable during disasters (they may not even
    know there’s someone at their front door if there’s no electricity to power their customary alerts) and that they may need some assistance getting affordable plans for smartphones as well as for alerting systems that will work during power outages.

    It’s indeed a very good idea for each of us to plan ahead to address our own needs as much as possible. The thing is, though, that sometimes no matter how much we ourselves do, we still need other people and organizations to plan to do their part, and in advance. The organizations that run shelters need to plan in advance for how to address the communication needs of people with hearing loss, as do government agencies and many other entities during times of crises.

  2. This was a welcome article! I’ve worked in buildings that had a fire alarm but I couldn’t hear it, even though I use a Cochlear Implant devise. One time I was working, my mind on my work, concentrating and didn’t hear a sound. You find out who your friends are in this situation. A Chinese woman who worked in another lab realized I wasn’t down there with the rest and bravely came back into the building and got me! She could have been risking her life.

    I now have a phone with text only. As both Gael and Dana point out, I cannot afford the smart-phone with its monthly fees. Only my husband and one friend will use text so I am still quite cut off from information.

    I’ve self Identified myself in airports too and when the plane flight was cancelled she didn’t tell me and I was mystified when everyone got up and hurried out of the terminal, including her!

    I once had a knife held to my throat after getting off a bus to walk home. He was behind me and said something and I could not hear what he was saying so I just had to grab the knife and fight as hard as I could. Luckily I’m still here to add my two cents! But being deaf leaves you quite vulnerable and carrying ANY type of self defense weapon is really not going to be very helpful.

    So, yes! Please when doing the logistics and planning remember the hard of hearing and deaf! We ARE a productive part of the nation and deserve a chance to survive unseen disasters and not having real time captioning during televised warning is so scary! You can see something is wrong but can’t hear to know what it is or where to go or what to do! I read “get a radio” and despair! How will I hear that? I won’t!

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