9/11: A Lesson in Deaf Emergency Preparedness

Posted by: Staff Writer on Sept. 11, 2012

Eleven years ago, the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil was so devastating, that there is not one standard sign for it. There are many - and all of them evoke deep emotions. Ask anyone from the deaf community to sign “Twin Towers” or “9/11” and you’ll different signed interpretations to the event that changed the world forever. Some of us punch a fist against the “1” hand shape. Others, two index fingers slowly dropping one by one. For others, it's an explosion or collapse.

Different signs, yes, but still a similar experience. Many in the deaf community share an unequal footing in the hearing world, and as an oft-underrepresented minority group, we are among the most vulnerable in a situation as dire as 9/11.

So posits a documentary called 9/11 Fear in Silence (cc for access). According to this film, the work of Ann Marie “Jade” Bryan in association with Deaf Filmworks, there were 22 deaf and hard of hearing people working in the World Trade Center (WTC) on Sept. 11, 2001. Though they could not hear the horrifying sounds, their other senses were heightened at the brush with death. 

Robert Jacaruso, a deaf WTC 1 Survivor who worked on 74th Floor, described the smelling burnt skin from 80th floor workers, seeing the red and blue colors of the airplane falling past him, and feeling the building sway violently as the first plane hit at 8:45 A.M.

Then he describes how, just like many deaf during emergencies, he ‘missed the train’:

“Everyone dropped everything and ran into a stampede toward the escape doorway. They dropped papers, everything and ran toward the stairs, except me.”

Were it not for a co-worker who eventually realized he needed help, Jacaruso may not have gotten out in time.

Edwin King, a deaf chef and WTC2 survivor who was working on the 3rd floor, had a similarly delayed realization: “The floor was caving in. I couldn't figure out what happened. It's hard to explain what I felt as a deaf person because I couldn't hear exactly what it was.”

It's hard to find a silver lining in a cloud so large and dark. Not only do we have to reflect on 9/11 again for the 11th time, we also worry about doomsday scenarios like the Mayans’ apocalypse prophecy. But whether it’s a school practice fire drill, a real fire, or the worst terrorist attack on American soil, we are slowly moving out of the dark ages of emergency response readiness.

What happens in the East Coast, profoundly affects the West Coast. Locally in Seattle, we are proud to note that we have a Washington State 9-1-1/TTY Education Program at the Hearing, Speech and Deafness Center. This program collaborates with state and local 9-1-1 and emergency management agencies so that the deaf, deaf-blind, hard of hearing or speech-challenged can have equal access during times of crisis. 

Further from home, the FEMA started a grant-funded project called the Community Resilience Project (CRP), which in the wake of 9/11 hired mental health professionals qualified to work with the North Virginia’s deaf and hard of hearing community.  They are collecting stories from our Community, to advocate for improved emergency response services.

Also following 9/11, the Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Inc. (TDI) created the Emergency Responders and the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community: Taking the First Steps to Disaster Preparedness course, in an initiative supported by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

These are examples of projects set up to help us, the differently-abled, learn to prepare for, respond to, and recover from emergencies.

We’d call that progress. But as with many social justice issues, we’re nowhere close to done.

  • EVERY building needs to be equipped with blinking lights, not just sound-based alarm systems.
  • EVERY firefighter and first responder needs to be trained in how to communicate with deaf, deaf-blind, and hard of hearing individuals during emergencies.  
  • EVERY subway station needs to have clearly marked evacuation-designed safe areas for deaf and hard of hearing commuters.
  • EVERY 9-1-1 operator must be well-trained on accessible emergency procedures via accessible communication such as TTY, voice and relay services.
  • EVERY law enforcement, hospital, and fire department must be connected to deaf-appropriate alert systems and accessible emergency communication.

That goes for the municipal, state, and federal level – as well as private offices and local businesses.

Because all workers are someone’s Dad, sister, son, husband, or Grandma. Someone who, whether hearing, hard of hearing, deaf, or deaf-blind, is beloved.

Because 9/11 was a day that reminded you that everyone deserves salvation in equal measure.

Because being deaf-friendly isn’t just about creating an enjoyable consumer experience, or following the ADA rules. It’s about creating an environment where our will to survive can be matched to our ability to survive.

Nearly 36 million people in America have hearing loss. That’s one out of ten people who could seriously be left alone, unaware and vulnerable in dangerous situations.

None of the nearly three thousand deaths from the 9/11 attacks will ever be considered “not in vain.” These lives will never return from the rubble, nor their deaths be truly avenged. But as we rebuild, we can build more accessible, socially aware systems for all. Now that is justice for all.


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