The Deaf and Disabled in Natural Disasters

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Robert Traynor
September 12, 2017

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.



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