During a Natural Disaster, Accessible Communication is Critical

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Massive hurricane swirls over blue water

Since Hurricane Irma hit the west coast of Florida, I have debated when would be the appropriate time to address the realities that exist regarding public awareness and disaster preparedness for people with disabilities and the importance of accessible communication.  October is Blindness Awareness Month, so I am bringing some awareness. 

It is first important to recognize the excellent job that Governor Rick Scott and his team provided in making certain Floridians were prepared.  They utilized a qualified American Sign Language Interpreter, and provided clear directions for resources available to people with disabilities.  Appropriate communication with all Floridians pre- and post-hurricane were a priority of Governor Scott and his team.

Some communities fell short in considering ALL citizens when providing communication. The most publicized ADA blunder occurred in Manatee County, where I reside. In case you haven’t heard the story, the county decided to forgo the Effective Communication Rule when they selected an employee with ‘some’ sign language knowledge to communicate important information to the deaf community regarding resources and hurricane preparedness.

In all fairness to him, the county employee stated he was not qualified, and only used sign language to communicate with his brother. This shows how little the county knew about the importance of providing qualified ADA services.

I watched this incident make national news, international news, and even become late night entertainment.

But, before we beat up this county for not providing Effective Communication in a time of crisis, it is important to note that many cities, counties, states and federal agencies fail to meet ADA and Section 508 Compliance. During a crisis, this means they might not be able to deliver accessible communication regarding safety and preparedness.Storm surge on a FL beach as hurricane winds bend palm trees

The only difference between what occurred in Manatee County verses what occurs across our nation, is the media hasn’t been present to report.

The media isn’t reporting that equal access to goods, services and information is often denied to citizens with disabilities.

The media isn’t reporting that unless a person with a disability sues, enforcement of the law is not likely to occur based on some recent changes at the Department of Justice.

So, while I am thankful attention has been brought to this incident, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the failures that put millions of Americans in danger.

I encourage the media to really dig into the realities that Americans with disabilities face when it comes to public safety and preparedness. I encourage all local, state and national agencies to make equal access for all citizens a priority. The Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted in 1990, twenty-seven years ago, and equality is still not accessible for all.

Thankfully for my family, Hurricane Irma’s remnants consist of yard debris, some broken lanai screens, and a deep appreciation for running water and electricity. However, the reality is things could have been far worse. The time for awareness is NOW.
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This post was written by Christine Sket

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