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What Works When Technology Doesn't?

Diane Morton

Professor, Department of Counseling

Gallaudet University


I worked in California a number of years ago, at a school for the deaf during the time of an earthquake in the 1990s in San Francisco.  Luckily, our school was safe, but it caused me to begin thinking about what would happen if something happened to the school?  How would we respond?  How would we get word to the community?  What would happen?  And also at that time there was a large Deaf community in Fremont, in the San Francisco area, and how would Deaf people there be assisted?  So it started me thinking about that subject.


Because I worked in the school I was very aware of school disasters, for instance, school shootings, and other incidents that can happen within the school environment.  Although it hadn't happened at the school for the deaf, I began to ask myself how does a school like Columbine High School -- if they had a small deaf program -- how would that school serve its deaf students, and parents of deaf students, and deaf parents of hearing students in that town?  How would they be served?  How does that happen?  Where do the resources for the deaf community come from?


I was the director of the school mental health program, and we were expected to do the counseling services within the school.  So let's imagine Columbine happened in my school, or an earthquake happened that impacted my school.  Could I then offer my services to people?  I would be devastated myself.  So who is going to come and help me?  How do we get counseling?  How do we have volunteers to come and help who can sign?  So it got me to think being these subjects.


And then obviously 9/11 affected all of us, and all of us had to do self-searching, self-reflection, and at the same time provide emergency response, making sure that there was safety.  Saving others, caring for families and so forth.  My memory may not be accurate, but from my understanding it seemed that there were three or four deaf people within the World Trade Center who were evacuated.  But one hearing man who had deaf parents died, and the deaf parents were able to receive services through the mental health services, and they were able receive appropriate services.  So the community wasn't impacted so much by 9/11.


However, that was the beginning of me trying to do something more proactive.  I contacted the Red Cross, the National Red Cross offices here in Washington D.C., and I started a dialogue of could we set up a core group of people who could sign, both deaf and hearing people who could sign, and who could respond during national disasters, local disasters, state disasters, on whatever level.  People who could work with those deaf people in that particular situation in a particular locale.  They were very willing to proceed with that idea.  It's interesting that, with the collaboration with Gallaudet University, they were willing and some training sessions were set up.  This was in 2002, and we trained about 20 people.  Most of them were from Gallaudet University or in the local area here in Washington D.C. 


By the year 2003, at ADARA’s national conference we had a training, and there were another 20 people trained.  So that way it wasn't just people from D.C., but it also people from the northeast, some from the west that attended the conference, from New York; and today, through the Gallaudet regional centers, there is planning for training in California.  So we'll again have another group, hopefully 20 additional people on the West Coast.  So we'll have people throughout the United States that can respond in times of emergency.  That's a great idea, right? 


First of all, we have to recognize that Hurricane Katrina was the biggest disaster that the Red Cross experienced not only in terms of the deaf community, but other disability communities that were underserved.  From about the third or fourth day I started to call the Red Cross to offer our services.  I couldn't get through.  The technology didn't work.  The phone lines were down.  They were overloaded.  So it was quite a struggle.  I sent an e-mail.  It bounced back.  I kept at it.  This continued for one week.  And then finally I was able to get through. 


However, they didn’t notice any needs of deaf people in New Orleans, in Louisiana, in Mississippi.  I don't think they had gone to Texas yet, but they didn’t notice or hear of any needs.  That's what their response was.  And I said, wait a minute.  We are getting calls here at Gallaudet.  We're getting calls from Louisiana School for the Deaf, and the Mississippi Deaf community, ADARA got calls, the deaf association in Florida got calls.  So we did know there was, in fact, a need. 


But the Red Cross has their procedures; they had to identify a need from their workers in that state working on that disaster.  At that time they were moving people from New Orleans to Houston.  It was the same story.  “Oh, we don't have a need.  There's no need here in Houston.”  But at the same time we were getting calls and pages from people in Texas. 


Many people were underserved, again, not just deaf people.  “Interesting” is not a good word, but it was an experience that taught us.  It was a moment that taught us that we cannot rely on some of the state and federal agencies to meet the needs of Deaf people.


But let's talk about what did work.  Judy asked me, please do talk about what did work.  I had to think about that.  Really, the answer is very simple.  It took me a little bit of time to get to the answer, but the answer is quite simple.


Really the Deaf community worked, the networking, the communication within the Deaf community, the willingness of hearing and Deaf people to respond worked.  Let me give you some examples.  The Louisiana School for the Deaf responded.  People went to Baton Rouge from New Orleans.  There was no public announcement, "Please, all the Deaf people should go to Baton Rouge.”  There was no announcement.  They just went to Baton Rouge because a Deaf School was there.  They knew there would be communication there, and they knew that they would be assistance there at the school for the deaf in Baton Rouge.


In Houston, there was no specific place to go -- no Deaf Center.  So Deaf people first went to the Astrodome, and then from there they moved as a group to the conference center.  Now, who were the ones that organized the move of deaf people to the conference center?  Interpreters, Deaf people who worked in Houston, hearing people who worked with Deaf people in Houston; The Deaf community in Houston went to the Astrodome without being asked.  There was nothing that indicated Deaf people were there, but they devised a system where they identified Deaf people.  The interpreters walked around and held up signs saying Deaf, Need help?  Need an interpreter?  They didn't ask to be paid, they went voluntarily and had a system to able to help and assist Deaf people.


People from Houston then had to evacuate to Austin because of Hurricane Rita.  And then the Austin Deaf community responded.  They came to the shelter and helped them with food, clothing, and then they went back to New Orleans.  The churches helped, the Deaf churches helped -- in Baton Rouge, in Houston, in Austin.  And in all of these cases the Deaf churches helped.  No one asked them to help, but they came to assist on their own.


If the Deaf community are their own first responders -- and they are, and they were in this case -- 

What are our needs to make things work better next time?  This doesn't apply only to the Deaf community, but it applies to other disability communities as well.  We have to take a leadership role in helping ourselves as opposed to depending on other organizations and other groups that are supposed to be there for us.  Because in the end, we are a small group, a small minority that is often overlooked.


The first thing we need to do is advocate, which is what you all are doing here.  We need to start talking about these issues, and where do we move?  What do we do for advocacy in terms of the Red Cross, in terms of FEMA, in terms of the Department of Homeland Security?  Where do we start advocating? 


I'm saying this in jest:  Should we have a Deaf Red Cross?  I don't know.  Maybe we need a Deaf Red Cross.  But I am advocating for better recognition and services. 


We need some kind of direct link with those agencies.  I did not go to New Orleans and Houston myself, but because I have a list of names, 40 people that I know that I can contact, and then I can make links with the Red Cross.  I spent hours and hours and hours on e-mail trying to make these connections and links.  But, again, that was with the general Red Cross. 


Claude Stout helped – He has contacts with the Department of Homeland Security that really got things moving.  But before that, oh, my goodness, it was really frustrating.  And finally they listened, and finally there were some questions asked, and there was some movement that happened for people to be able to go to Houston and Baton Rouge. 


Since that's happened, there has been a lot of dialogue with the Red Cross.  The sad thing is that many people did volunteer, and they came for two weeks, they went back home, and they came for a month and went back home.  So the contacts kept changing.  I had four different contacts.  But there was one point-person who explained to me that the Red Cross has a disability task force.  I don't know who is on that task force.  But it appears that there is no Deaf representation.


Because the Deaf community was able to respond to their own needs, it caused me to start wondering should we have our own direct link with the Red Cross, with the Department of Homeland Security, with FEMA?  Should we perhaps be a line item in their budget?  I mean, these were ideas that we need to start dialoguing about instead of trying to go through every disaster, every hurricane that hits Florida.  I mean, we can talk to Chris about that.  And just say, "Okay, where's my money," and be able to take on our own efforts.


So in addition, each state needs to have a plan for their disabled communities, for the Deaf community, for the Blind community, for the physically-disabled community, or whatever.  They need to have a plan already in place.  Some of that plan should include, where do the Deaf people go?  What about communication?  There was communication breakdown.  Do they know where a safe place is to go?  Where should they go next?


Also, identify sites and shelters that will have interpreters already there.  People that are sensitive to the needs of Deaf people.  Having signage in addition to a PA system for announcements and so forth. 


For each state, who would be a contact?  For Florida, obviously the Florida Deaf Association.  But perhaps another Deaf organization in another state might not be as strong as in Florida.  Is there a Commission for the Deaf in a particular state that would be the central contact person, for example?  States like Texas, or California.  You might need to divide the state in halves or in quarters.  But there needs to be a point of contact.  Who makes the contact?  Who are the decision-makers within the state planning?  That needs to be addressed. 


Now, many schools for the deaf may scream at me for saying this:  We need to have schools for the deaf in each state be identified as shelters.  Now, think for a moment in terms of budget.  They receive a budget for children.  Now we're taking away money from the school for food, resources for the disaster evacuees.  So, suppose in the State of California the was an earthquake, there would be "X" amount of dollars earmarked for the school to receive for sheltering these people, that would be paid to cover additional food, additional security and safety issues.  You have strangers, adults, in a place that houses and takes care of children.  So you have to be careful, you know, in terms of security when a place is for children with strangers and adults coming in. 


Gallaudet University here is an obvious place, a university setting. 


Also it so happens that during 9/11, I don't know if you know that the Deaf Senior Citizen's Conference was in either Minnesota or Wisconsin.  September 11-14 were the dates and many people were flying in for the conference.  Many Deaf people were stuck because planes were grounded.  They couldn't leave the conference; or they were in their own locales and missed the conference. 


When some senior citizens arrived in D.C. on their way, they couldn't leave.  They were offered to go to a hotel.  The airlines would pay for that.  They said, no, we want to go to Gallaudet University.  Why was that?  Because there is communication here.  There is safety here.  They feel good about being here.  What about a hotel?  They would be isolated.  Gallaudet was willing to let them come and stay.  I mean, there is a hotel right here in the building where we are.  So there is a need to be with each other.  There is a need for communication and to know what's going on.


So I think that in addition to technology we need to talk about the person-to-person contact.  How do people have safety, clear communication, know where to go.  And I brought it up with the administrators of deaf schools conference, their spring conference.  That's an idea that I am throwing out to them. 


And I want to continue my discussions with the Red Cross, and those of you who have contacts or other ideas, please share them.  We need to work together to make things better.


Thank you. 


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