Signing Snafu Leaves Deaf Community in Danger

Hurricane Irma recently ripped through the Caribbean, Florida and parts of Southeastern U.S. leaving astronomical effects on the inhabitants and their livelihoods in its wake.

The fear these residents must've felt is inconceivable, and it was only furthered by the actions of Manatee County, Florida. Recently, a story from this county has rocked headlines with a video of an emergency public safety briefing in regards to Hurricane Irma. This information was essential for residents’ safety, so one would think that the Emergency Operations Center would take all necessary steps to ensure that each resident could understand the information being shared. However, this was not the case.

Picture yourself in the midst of a potentially life altering natural disaster. You turn on your TV for an important public safety announcement, and you cannot understand a single thing being said. In fact, actual nonsense like “pizza”, “bear monster” or “pray wait water” is said.

This is what happened September 8th in Manatee County. For Manatee County’s Emergency Operations Center’s public safety broadcast, an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter was included for the deaf community. However, instead of hiring a certified interpreter, Manatee County used a lifeguard named Marshall Greene, who only knew a small amount of sign language to communicate with his deaf brother. The Emergency Operations Center claims that they were “in a pinch”, but VisCom, a company that provides interpreters for this county, say they were never contacted. Even if they were “in a pinch,” the idea that a public office would have the audacity to use an unqualified and fraudulent “interpreter” to convey life-saving information during an emergency broadcast is shocking. Manatee County’s actions are incredibly offensive to the deaf community and left many of residents extremely vulnerable.

The deaf community was left stranded, scared and in danger, with no idea what was happening. Ms. Beacham-Hooie told the New York Times through an interpreter that she didn't know if the hurricane was headed towards her or not. This is essential information that she had the right to know, and was left in the dark.

Greene was clearly unqualified. He looked at the person speaking while signing, his facial expressions were wrong, he wore a bright distracting shirt, and he signed literal gibberish. Greene may have tried his best, and genuinely thought he could translate. Additionally, the county may have overestimated his abilities. However, this error in judgment left an entire population vulnerable and in real danger.

When done correctly, American Sign Language is a beautiful and expressive language. In fact, we should all know a few signs; whether it be for an emergency or even to communicate with our classmates and fellow human beings. The University of Akron offers several great courses in American Sign Language for those who are interested in learning. Also, for those interested in learning in a more casual setting, the ASL club is a great option. Clubs and classes like the ones UA offers can help spread knowledge and awareness, and could potentially help prevent situations like the one in Manatee County.