By Carmen Green, deputy director, The Arizona Commission for the Deaf and the Hard of Hearing
Do you know how to communicate with a deaf or hard of hearing person who may be involved in a car accident? What about someone trapped inside a burning building who uses ASL to communicate?
September is National Preparedness Month and preparing for any kind of emergency situation is key. More than 55 million people in the United States currently experience some degree of hearing loss, which means at least 10% of the public you may interact with will have hearing loss. As a first responder, you need to be prepared for any situation. As with any individual in an emergency situation, stress levels are high. For someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, the stress levels may be even higher due to communication barriers.
Ineffective communication can cause frustration, angst and anxiety and is a problem that occurs far too often in emergency situations. Either because the first responders are not aware that a person is deaf or hard of hearing or they don’t know how to communicate with a deaf or hard of hearing individual.
Below are a few tips for communicating with a deaf or hard of hearing individual in an emergency situation:
• If an individual fails to respond to a verbal request establish very direct eye contact.
• After establishing eye contact repeat or rephrase the first request.
o Eye contact is extremely helpful because deaf or hard of hearing individuals read the nuances of facial expressions and body language for additional information.
o It is important to look for hearing aids, cochlear implants, or other types of assistive devices that would alert you.
o Just because an individual has hearing aids does not automatically mean that they can hear you.
o Before making an assumption, double-check to make sure that the individual understood you.
o Most often a deaf or hard of hearing individual will try to point to their ears to let you know they are either deaf or hard of hearing.
• Understand that some deaf or hard of hearing individuals may use American Sign Language as their first language.
o Being able to finger-spell key words may help you communicate with an individual who uses ASL.
o Oftentimes an American Sign Language is needed for the most effective communication.
• Written communication may be important if you or the individual are not able to understand one another.
o Keep in mind that handwritten instructions may not be the best way to communicate with a deaf individual.
o If you do need to use written communication keep it short and to the point.
• Visual Cues are very effective
o When you are trying to get the attention of a deaf or hard of hearing individual, hand waving, tapping the shoulder or arm or flickering lights on and off are the most effective.
o Masks, mustaches, and accents can make it difficult for a person to lip-read and a person who is deaf or that has a hearing loss may not hear alarms, smoke detectors, and emergency sirens.
• Hard of hearing individuals who lip-read depend upon good lighting and less noise in the background. It is important to understand that less than 30% of what is said can be accurately understood from lip-reading.
o If possible, try to bring the individual into a well-lit area with minimal noise. It may also be helpful for a first responder to speak a bit louder and slower than usual and get closer to the person they are speaking with.
The most important thing to remember in an emergency situation is to communicate as clearly as possible. Have a plan for how to handle a situation that may involve a deaf or hard of hearing individual, and practice it.
The Arizona Commission for the Deaf and the Hard of Hearing provides free training for first responders on working with the deaf and hard of hearing communities. They also provide free information and resources for how to prepare for emergency situations. For more information on deaf and hard of hearing specific resources, visit our website here.
For more information on National Preparedness Month, visit FirstResponder.gov here.
About the Author
Carmen Green is the deputy director for the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and the Hard of Hearing, as well as a member of the National Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Arizona Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, National Alliance of Black Interpreters and the National Association of the Deaf.