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Opening Remarks

Jane K. Fernandes

Provost
Chair, Crisis Management Team
Gallaudet University

 

Good morning, everyone! 

 

We at Gallaudet University are very pleased to have you on our campus.  For many of you, this may be your first time at Gallaudet, and we want to extend a special welcome to you.

 

People are attending this conference from across the United States, and from as far away as Japan.  You have come together to learn and share experiences.  You in the audience represent a variety of constituencies including consumer groups; state commissions dealing with disability, or state commissions dealing with deaf and hard of hearing individuals; professionals in public safety communications; federal government; broadcasting companies, the telecommunications industry, and also industry trade associations.  You represent a range and breadth of experience and expertise, and I am pleased that you have come to Gallaudet to discuss improvements in the response during emergencies for people with disabilities.

 

The conference is being hosted by the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Telecommunications Access, a project supported by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, or NIDRR.  We are now in the 10th year of collaboration between Gallaudet's Technology Access Program and the University of Wisconsin's Trace Center on this project.  We here at Gallaudet appreciate the support of NIDRR for this important work.

 

Judy just mentioned that I am the Provost as well as the chair of the Crisis Management Team for Gallaudet University.  The Crisis Management Team ranks, I would say, really among the most important work that I do.  We know that emergencies do happen, and that, if we are prepared, we can handle them better.  The Crisis Management Team meets on a monthly basis, whether there is an existing emergency or not.  We discuss situations, we deliberate in terms of ideas for different crisis situations; and we generate or brainstorm different crisis scenarios, and we're always preparing for what could happen, and how we will deal with it. 

 

This afternoon Carl Pramuk, who is Dean of Student Affairs, will give a presentation about some things that we have faced here at Gallaudet University.  We've been through a lot, and Judy mentioned a few things.  Really, the list goes on and on in terms of emergencies -- things that we have faced and could face in the future.

 

We face situations as other people have faced them in the United States but the challenge is greater at Gallaudet because our community includes people who are deaf, hard of hearing and deaf-blind.  It is our responsibility to communicate quickly and effectively with them during emergencies.

 

For example, during 9/11, it was a shock here to those of us on Gallaudet's campus as it was throughout the D.C. area.  We had the added responsibility to communicate clearly with students, faculty, and staff about how we were handling the situation and what our response was to that emergency.  After 9/11 came the anthrax scare, followed by the sniper attacks in the D.C. area; the Crisis Management Team worked throughout those various crises.

 

The biggest crisis that some of you do remember was approximately five years ago when two students were murdered here on campus.  Six to eight months went by during which we did not know who the perpetrator of those crimes was.  The Crisis Management Team had to deal with ongoing fear and assumptions of who might have committed the crimes.  We could not call a cancellation of the emergency.  We were in a state of emergency that lasted six to eight months until the perpetrator was arrested.

 

The students were scared.  The faculty and staff were scared.  Parents were scared.  Our response was to use every possible avenue of communication to keep everyone informed.  We understand that communication is the key.  Even if we don't know everything that’s going on, we communicate as much as know.  We communicate the facts about the situation.  We want to be clear what we expect people to do, how we can assist them, and how they can assist us through the emergency.   

 

During 9/11, the anthrax scare, the sniper period, and a host of other things that were happening, there were some deaf people who worked in different federal government agencies and who contacted me here and asked if Gallaudet would allow them to come on campus during an emergency, during a crisis.  They didn't want to stay within their own government agencies.  We were shocked that these workers wanted to come to Gallaudet.  We thought that it might be dangerous for them to leave their offices and travel to Gallaudet.  We tried to explain that to them but they wanted to come here to Gallaudet University because there would be communication.  A lone deaf person in a government agency, or a deaf-blind person, or a hard-of-hearing person would likely receive little or no information and what was actually happening around them would be left to their own imagination.  Thus they would prefer to come here to Gallaudet University where communication would happen.  Communication is critical for people who are deaf and it probably just as critical for all people.  It is key, especially during an emergency.

 

While we try to communicate in the best way possible, I acknowledge that it's never perfect.  We saw this during Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita.  Deaf people, hard of hearing people, deaf-blind people, and people with speech disabilities were left out.  That's the only way to say it.  They were completely left out.

 

Diane Morton will speak to you tomorrow afternoon about some of Gallaudet's work after the hurricanes.  Some Gallaudet people went to the region to help people, and witnessed a really bad system of communication in relating to the needs of deaf and hard of hearing people, deaf-blind people, and people with speech disabilities.  Even though they had a system in place, it didn't work.

 

So I urge you to come together and seriously deliberate about how we can make things better.  We have to really focus and make a commitment to do this.  It is exciting that you've come to discuss new ideas, new systems, new technologies, and those things that might be developed in the future.

 

When people like you come together, there is often synergy of thought, and new methods or approaches are born.  That's what this conference is about, and I hope that you will be able to develop a deep commitment to improve communication for all people during any emergency. 

 

I would like to close by presenting you with a particular challenge we have at Gallaudet.  Our dorms are full of deaf and hard of hearing students, as well as deaf-blind students, and they're there all night, of course.  Suppose something happens in the middle of the night and there is an emergency, a biological attack or a chemical weapon is dropped in D.C. during the middle of the night.  The University needs to let the students know and communicate with those in the dorm as to what they should do.  We don't want them to come out of the dorms.  We want them to stay in the dorms.  We do have a system in place for what to do in terms of whether to go to the highest point or the lowest point in the building.  We have food, we have water, we have a system ready and in place.  But the question is, how do we inform the students?  It's a big issue.  We have fire alarms in the buildings, but that communicates that you have to exit the building.  So we can't use the fire alarm.  How do we tell them that we want them to stay in the building, but to go to the highest point, or the lowest point?  Carl Pramuk will explain more about this issue later today in his presentation.

 

Again, we welcome you, and we welcome your ideas about how to solve the issue I described as well as other communication challenges we face.  Best wishes for a productive and enjoyable conference

 

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