Late summer through early winter is often considered "disaster season" in North America because this period coincides with a peak in various natural disasters, including hurricanes, wildfires, and certain types of storms that often lead to flooding and landslides.

As the calendar turns to this time of year, it brings to the forefront the critical issue of language barriers in disaster response and recovery. Studies show that many essential community organizations are unprepared to communicate with and assist vulnerable residents.

In this article, we will review the state of emergency preparedness among critical organizations and offer potential steps these groups can take to better aid limited English speakers, as well as the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

A 2020 review of emergency preparedness efforts for culturally diverse communities by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights (OCR) found that only 14% of the organizations profiled provided training and education opportunities in languages other than English. Only 30% provided translated materials on their website. Just 35% of all organizations were prepared to communicate with the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. 

“Extensive data shows there’s a lack of meaningful language access across the country when it comes to disaster preparedness, and that can lead to inequitable access to health care and other services,” said Melanie Fontes Rainer, Director of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights (OCR). “If you can’t communicate, how are you supposed to understand the severity of what’s happening or what is needed? It’s critical that agencies do their part to meet the needs of their communities, which includes language services.”

Disaster Preparedness Can Help Eliminate Inequity

A large body of research has shown that certain groups are more likely than others to suffer when disasters strike. These groups include the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and limited-English speakers, who are often among those with the least resources to withstand a disaster and may be left without options or the ability to continue their lives as normal after such emergencies.

In times of disaster, effective communication can save lives. Local, state, and federal organizations must ensure that their emergency preparedness and response plans are inclusive, addressing the needs of limited English speakers and the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

Here’s how these organizations can better prepare and communicate with these communities.

Understanding Language Needs

The first step is to understand the linguistic landscape of the affected region. Regularly conducting demographic analyses, utilizing census data, school records, and community surveys can provide an accurate picture of the languages spoken.

Engage with Community Organizations

Building partnerships with community organizations that serve limited English speakers and the Deaf and Hard of Hearing is crucial. These partnerships can help develop culturally and linguistically appropriate preparedness programs. Employing community liaisons who are familiar with community needs can bridge communication gaps effectively.

Develop Multilingual Resources

Organizations should ensure that all disaster preparedness materials are available in the languages spoken within their communities. LanguageLine can assist with the translation of written materials, ensuring accuracy and cultural relevance. 

Training emergency responders in basic phrases of these languages can also significantly improve on-the-ground communication.

Create Accessible Alert Systems

It is essential to have emergency notification systems that cater to everyone. This includes:

  • Captioning and ASL: Ensuring that all video communications, such as public service announcements and press conferences, are captioned and include American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation.
  • Text Alerts: Implementing text-based emergency alert systems that can be received on cell phones and other devices, with options for multiple languages.

During emergencies, having multilingual alerts and visual and auditory notifications is vital. Automated systems can send alerts in multiple languages via SMS, social media, and other channels. Emergency notifications should be available in both visual (text, video with ASL) and auditory (voice messages in multiple languages) formats.

Provide On-Demand Interpretation

During emergencies, agencies and other organizations often struggle providing one-to-one communication with limited English speakers and Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals.

Fortunately, on-demand interpretation is available that can facilitate these interactions as they arise. 

LanguageLine offers on-demand interpreters who can be reached in more than 240 languages via phone or the LanguageLine app, which provides one-touch access to live, professional interpretation in video and audio-only formats. This service includes American Sign Language, ensuring comprehensive communication support during critical moments.

Have Professional ASL Interpreters Ready

The needs of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing are often forgotten when it comes to press briefings or live announcements. Having ASL interpreters available for these events guarantees that the Deaf and Hard of Hearing receive timely and accurate information.

LanguageLine can assist with the availability of in-person ASL interpreters. 

Equip Emergency Shelters

Emergency shelters should be equipped with access to on-demand interpretation for limited English speakers and the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Multilingual signage, including visual symbols, can aid understanding and navigation within shelters.

Long-term Strategies for Inclusivity

Developing inclusive policies that mandate the involvement of limited English speakers and the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in emergency planning and response is essential. These policies should be regularly updated based on community feedback and evolving needs.

Conduct Education and Drills

Regular disaster drills that include participation from limited English speakers and the Deaf and Hard of Hearing to ensure that plans are effective and inclusive. Ongoing public education campaigns in multiple languages and accessible formats help everyone prepare for emergencies.

Continuous Feedback and Improvement

Establishing mechanisms for collecting feedback from limited English speakers and the Deaf and Hard of Hearing after emergencies can identify gaps and areas for improvement. Using this feedback to continuously enhance emergency preparedness and response strategies ensures that organizations can meet the needs of all community members effectively.

LanguageLine Can Help

By implementing these strategies, organizations can ensure more inclusive and effective communication and preparation for all community members, thereby enhancing overall disaster resilience. 

At LanguageLine, we are committed to supporting these efforts, ensuring that language barriers do not stand in the way of safety and preparedness. Our comprehensive translation and interpretation services are here to help make emergency communication inclusive and effective. Please contact us so that we can learn more about the specific needs of your organization. 

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