Deaf People Use Social Media to Make Their Voices Heard: Can #SMEM be used to reach them in a crisis?

Guest Post by: Dr. Steph Jo Kent

News about the #fakeinterpreter for Nelson Mandela’s Memorial Service worsened daily: from grotesque incompetence to mental illness to a potential record of violent crime. If ever there was a cautionary tale for emergency management, this is it. Are you wondering “how such a spectacular mistake could have been made“?


Before the latest horrifying turn, sign language interpreters and members of the Deaf community were already beginning to emerge from the first waves of disappointment, anger, and humiliation. One man’s audacity, and what appears to be a laissez-faire attitude toward providing real communication access, drew the lightning bolt flash of long pent-up Deaf frustration. Cathy Heffernan, writing for The Guardianpresents the background:

“Bad interpretation is surprisingly common and something that deaf people who use interpreters face on a regular basis. Across public services and the courts unqualified people are asked to translate, even in situations where clear communication can make the difference between life or death.”

The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf established a Task Force in 2009 to begin drafting an official position paper and process for integrating qualified sign language interpreters into all stages of the emergency management cycle: preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation. Overtures to establish Emergency Management Interpreter Strike Teams have been made to responsible agencies and managers at many levels of government. Some jurisdictions have taken this seriously, most however have not. (See the Getting Real II Presentation for information on foundations laid in California, Georgia, and Florida.)

Commentary from Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff, Director of Jewish Deaf Multimedia

Deaf people were frustrated two years ago by the hearing world’s exoticizing of Lydia Callis interpreting Hurricane Sandy public safety information for New York Governor Bloomberg. Rather than being understood as doing a competent job being the communication bridge between Hearing public officials and the Deaf public, she was glorified as a sign language star. Now we have Thamsanqa Jantjie at the opposite extreme.

“It is not just that Deaf people were left to decipher a mumble-jumble of random signs; it also serves as a message to the Deaf community that the world still does not understand us. For if the people responsible for hiring that interpreter would have had a better understanding of sign language and Deaf culture, they probably would have seen through his fraud.” ~ Rabbi Yehoshua Soudakoff

This travesty of failed communication heightens the responsibility of public officials to plan for and streamline the use of emergency management interpreters in all the settings where they may be needed. It also signals the growing presence of Deaf people in the mainstream.

An explanatory video from a Deaf South African, captioned (roughly) into English, describes how South Africans used Twitter to bring their complaint to the world’s attention. Messages spread on Facebook, as interpreters and Deaf community members in the UK tracked radio and television news reports. Now that the Deaf community has discovered Twitter, there are opportunities for Social Media and Emergency Management (#SMEM) to become more effective in communicating public warnings to the Deaf. A special hashtag was discussed a few years ago as a way to alert the Deaf to emergency situations. The proposed hashtag, #DEMX, stands for Deaf EMergency X. It hasn’t yet gotten traction but as the severity of seasonal storm cycles worsen, and the rate of unseasonal natural weather disasters increases, this may be an idea whose time has come.

Also see: The Deaf World is Watching. Will We Respond?

2 responses to “Deaf People Use Social Media to Make Their Voices Heard: Can #SMEM be used to reach them in a crisis?

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