Deaf people are highly vulnerable to disaster risk but tend to be excluded from programs aimed at boosting preparedness and resilience, our research has found.
Our study, published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, examined the challenges the New South Wales Deaf community faces in accessing the support they need to effectively respond to disaster risk.
Our research showed Deaf people are vulnerable to disasters for various reasons, including:
low disaster awareness and preparedness
poor knowledge of emergency services roles and responsibilities
dependency on family and friends for help.
Why are Deaf people vulnerable and excluded?
Via a mix of focus group discussions and interviews with 317 Deaf people, approximately 11.8% of the identified Deaf population in NSW, Deaf people shared their experiences of bushfires, floods, hailstorms and severe storms, tropical cyclones, and earthquakes.
Communication issues are the biggest barrier:
Deaf people have limited access to disaster information in Auslan (Australian sign language), in plain English or in pictorial form
emergency messages are usually communicated via TV and radio, door-to-door messaging, loudspeaker alerts and social media which are either audio in form or too complicated for many Deaf people to understand
emergency personnel and emergency shelter staff can find it hard to communicate with Deaf people due to language barriers.
Consequently, Deaf people are frequently unaware of evacuation shelter locations, unsure of whom and how to ask for help, and more likely to return to unsafe homes and conditions.
This marginalises them further and increases vulnerability. They also have difficulties in getting information on how to access recovery resources.
Trust in emergency services was often low
Good communication requires trust between everyone involved but Deaf peoples’ trust in the emergency services was low due to past bad experiences.
Deaf people reported that emergency services personnel were often uncomfortable communicating with them directly and lack the patience to use non-verbal communication methods.
Deaf people with disaster experience told us they had not received warnings prior to those disasters. This resulted in confusion, feelings of helplessness, panic, and a state of total unpreparedness. There was a sense that “we always come last”.
Consequently, Deaf people often rely on neighbours for assistance, but the help is not always there. One Deaf Central Coast resident told us:
In Berowra [Sydney suburb], we had great neighbours because we created and exchanged a list with our names, emergency contacts, phone numbers, email addresses, etc. as a way to communicate [with] each other on evacuation plans, emergency warnings, where to go and when to come back…[in] future emergencies. That concept was lovely […] but here in Ourimbah [on the Central Coast] it is different […] Here, in Ourimbah, no one bothers to check or share any updates with us.
High levels of isolation in rural areas left people without adequate support, with one person saying:
Contacting people who live far in the country is very difficult. It’s very sad. This is something that needs to be improved.
But the root cause of their vulnerability does not stem from their disability as is often assumed. It comes from a mismatch of cultures between the Deaf Community, the dominant English-speaking hearing world and institutional cultures found in the emergency services.
This creates misunderstandings on all sides and erodes trust.
Understanding and engaging with Deaf culture is key
Deaf people are a cultural and linguistic minority with an invisible disability. Being culturally d/Deaf is not determined by degrees of hearing loss – it’s about belonging to a distinctive cultural group.
Globally, there are about 70 million Deaf people, using approximately 300 sign languages. They are united together by various cultures, beliefs, experiences and practices.
Deaf community members often experience alienation and marginalisation from the dominant hearing population that misunderstands them. This divide excludes them from the everyday workings of society and increases their vulnerability to disasters. As one New England resident told us:
Deaf people know how I feel, what my frustrations are and my feelings. Hearing people do not know or will never understand that.
Deaf people’s weariness and mistrust of hearing people, including emergency responders, is the result of exclusionary processes that begin in childhood.
Education and literacy levels are low because of inadequate Auslan support in schools, making disaster preparedness information written in technical English inaccessible.
Poor support leads to isolation at school, at home and in the workplace. Deaf people are therefore used to working in isolation, feel insecure in the hearing world and often turn to hearing people for help.
This dependency on hearing people is learned and reinforced as a survival technique. This can lead to a degree of passivity within the Deaf Community and mistrust in their own capabilities as leaders.
Disaster management processes don’t help either. In Australia special services are “added onto” mainstream disaster management to cater for those with “special needs” without fully understanding what those needs are.
This accidentally excludes Deaf people more. A lack of Deaf awareness among emergency services leaves them without the knowledge and skills needed to support Deaf people, entrenching the cultural divide.
Change is underway but there’s much work to do
There’s an urgent need for greater and sustained engagement and support with the Deaf community. The Deaf community also need to step forward into leadership roles.
Inclusive projects like the Deaf Society’s Get Ready Deaf Society of NSW project (in which we were involved) are increasing the preparedness of NSW’s Deaf community by bridging the cultural divide between the Deaf Community and the emergency services.
Its greatest achievements were the translation of the Australian Red Cross’ national RediPlan into a series of videos in Auslan and the training of Deaf Liaison Officers (DLOs) who deliver Deaf Awareness training to emergency services and emergency preparedness workshops to Deaf people, and sharing disaster preparedness information with their community. One Disaster Liaison Officer told us:
One achievement from this was the change in perceptions. Deaf people realised they cannot play the ‘deaf card’ where they automatically assume someone will be there to help or save them. They need to understand that it is them that needs to be proactive in preparing themselves for natural disasters and hazards otherwise their [vulnerability to] risks will be high.
Thankfully, the inclusion of Auslan interpreters live on TV during emergency broadcasts is now mainstream helping to provide more consistent access to timely information. But this is still not enough.
Providing Auslan interpretation does not empower or equip Deaf community members with the skills they need to prepare, respond to and recover from disasters.
Mainstream Australia must do more to understand the deep-rooted cultural barriers to communication that disadvantage Deaf people. We urgently need sustained engagement and funding of initiatives that support Deaf people prepare for disasters and to lead within their own communities.
Nick Craig and Julia Allen coauthored this article and contributed to the original research.