When Disaster Strikes Information Access Is Critical For The Deaf And Hard Of Hearing Community

09/08/2017 03:37 pm ET Updated Sep 11, 2017

When disaster strikes, no matter what the cause may be, it is common to forget the needs of those among us who are deaf and hard of hearing (DHOH), roughly estimated to be greater than 50 million people in our country. No other group of Americans are without the ability to obtain the crucial information required to protect lives and properties, and the vast majority of us do not realize the threat presented to the deaf and hard of hearing when there is no accessible information available.

Fresh in our memory, especially as Hurricane Irma’s massive destructive force approaches the United States, is Hurricane Harvey, the Category 4 storm that made landfall near the Texas Gulf Coast late last month. Though Harvey has passed, its catastrophic impact will be felt for weeks, months and years to come.

Beyond the reported billions in damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure, the storm has taken a human toll, so far claiming the lives of at least 70 people and forever impacting their families and friends. The torrential rains and resulting floods submerged thousands of homes and displaced more than 30,000 people, disrupting what heretofore had been a routine and orderly existence.

Heroic emergency personnel, volunteers, and public safety crews in Houston worked tirelessly to assist those in need, resulting in more than 17,000 rescues from neighborhoods buried beneath feet of water and from roads that more resembled rivers than streets.

National and local television stations — such as Houston’s KHOU-TV — worked around the clock broadcasting the latest weather, shelter, and public safety updates, providing critical information to assist in the protection of lives and property during Harvey even though they placed themselves at risk while doing so.

The storm left all of Texas vulnerable, especially members of the state’s DHOH community who lack readily and easily obtained access to all emergency information and rely on clear and concisely captioned newscasts, emergency broadcasts, and public service announcements.

Factually, the lives of the DHOH community everywhere depend upon captions for information that many of us can easily access without captions, but at no time is it more critical than during a crisis threatening the loss of life.

So when KHOU, whose committed broadcast professionals risked their own safety to provide continuous coverage at great personal risk, was forced to go off the air when its broadcasting studio flooded, it left many in the Houston DHOH community who were attempting to obtain critical, realtime, life-saving information unable to do so.

Getting the right information as quickly as possible is of critical importance in any natural disaster or time of crisis. And in the closed captioning industry, it’s vastly important that the information on the screen is up-to-the-second and precisely delivered.

When KHOU was able to go back on air after the loss of their broadcast facility, they were unable to provide captions, furthering the challenges of the DHOH, due to equipment that was damaged in the flooding of their studio. VITAC has, among other actions related to Harvey, donated equipment needed for captioning services to resume at KHOU, enabling the station to continue to deliver the highest quality captioning while keeping their DHOH community, as well as all their viewers, updated and informed.

And VITAC’s captioning professionals — the industry’s largest and most experienced assembly of U.S.-based captioners, ready all day, every day — were quick to jump to action as Hurricane Harvey made landfall, volunteering to add captioning responsibilities to their already busy schedules, and working around the clock to caption hundreds of hours of news programming to help viewers who rely on them.

In addition to providing captions for Houston residents, VITAC also captioned live broadcasts simultaneously from trusted information providers such as The Weather Channel and AccuWeather as well as 24/7 newscasts from stations in Austin, Dallas, El Paso, and San Antonio, among many others.

Additionally, VITAC assisted by providing captions for a non-client station that requested our help to caption the sheer volume of emergency news being reported.

And nearly a dozen of VITAC’s own captioners residing in Texas and the greater Houston area felt and witnessed Harvey’s impact first-hand. Some were forced to leave their homes or help family members evacuate, while others were fortunate enough to be able to stay and assist. But through it all, the team pulled together, with many relocating to safer areas in order to remain on-air to caption emergency information and related details.

It is this unrivaled dedication to the DHOH community and clients, demonstrated by VITAC employees on an everyday basis, that makes VITAC stand out from the rest. Whether it be 100-year storms battering the coasts or wildfires threatening life and property in multiple states, our team is unwavering in its desire to assist.

We hope and pray that we don’t see a repeat of Harvey as Irma moves toward a direct hit on Florida this weekend and as Jose follows closely behind. Preparation, organization, and planning, combined with clear and reliable communications, are critical requirements to survival in any crisis.

To that end, VITAC has in place a series of emergency preparedness procedures and contingency plans that provide 24/7 captioning coverage during any natural catastrophe, and is committed to taking the steps necessary to assure the DHOH community that essential lifesaving information is available to them at all times.

We have been in constant contact with broadcast partners in Florida to gauge their captioning needs during Irma’s expected arrival, and have prescheduled around-the-clock captioning coverage to ensure that our clients and those who rely on captions will be supported with no disruption.

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