Statistics show that deaf people have higher rates of mortality and morbidity during and after disasters. In one study conducted by Gallaudet professor Dr. Kota Takayama, G-’09, findings revealed that — in the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, the country’s most powerful earthquake ever recorded — the deaf mortality rate was 0.76 next to the comparatively low 0.17 percent for hearing people. Despite the shockingly higher mortality rates, compounded by the highly disproportionate levels for protracted suffering from diseases and other medical conditions among deaf people impacted by disasters, it is difficult to fathom why deaf and hard of hearing people are almost totally excluded from disaster emergency employment worldwide.

Gallaudet University’s Disability-Inclusive Disaster Risk Reduction and Emergency Planning Program (DEP) aims to change this situation.

The DEP — which was approved in 2022 and launched its first cohort in 2023 — is the world’s only graduate certificate program that specializes in the roles of deaf people and signed languages in preparing for and recovery from disaster and emergency events, utilizing their unique language and cultural expertise to help strike a balance globally in the delivery of emergency services to deaf people. According to DEP’s mission statement, the program “trains deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-disabled, and signed language community members for key community-level and professional roles in Disability Inclusive Disaster Risk Reduction and emergency planning.”

Four people stand in the front of a room. A large screen behind them reads, "Building your emergency kit." There is a table next to them with some items on it.
Members of Gallaudet University’s Disability-Inclusive Disaster Risk Reduction and Emergency Planning Program inform audience members about essential items to include in an emergency kit at an April 3, 2024 presentation. At the top is a group photo from that same event.

The DEP certificate is an 18-credit program with a curriculum of four core and two elective courses. Training starts with the DEP foundations course, hosted on Gallaudet’s campus during the summer session to engage hands-on activities and field visits with emergency management agencies in the Washington, D.C. area. Fall and spring courses are hosted online, with face-to-face presentations and events. For example, on April 3, 2024, the DEP hosted a presentation in Jordan Student Academic Center #1011 entitled “Protecting Ourselves and Our Communities with EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS We’re ready! Are you?” with the D.C. Mayor’s Office of Deaf, DeafBlind, and Hard of Hearing; the Federal Emergency Management Agency-Region 3; and Gallaudet’s Office for Career Success. Other partners include the D.C. Homeland Security Emergency Management Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and several international collaborating organizations.

The DEP curriculum culminates with a Summer Institute hosted in collaboration with deaf community partners in a disaster-impacted setting in a U.S. territory or other country. This summer, the institute will be based in Japan, collaborating with six deaf-led organizations who have been at the forefront of disaster response and innovation following the Great East Japan Earthquake. The Summer Institute will also include disaster training delivered at the Kibotcha Training Program, a disaster prevention facility at the site of a former elementary school that was closed as a result of tsunami damage in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake. As part of the Summer Institute, the DEP is also partnering with the U.S. Embassy in Japan to host a “learning dialogue” on inclusive emergency preparedness, and conducting site visits to disaster memorials and teaching museums in Miyagi prefecture and Fukushima prefecture, where a nuclear accident caused by tsunamis following the earthquake caused 100,000 people to be evacuated from their homes. 

The DEP is an interdisciplinary/multi-school program led by Dr. Audrey Cooper, who is also director of Gallaudet’s International Development Master’s Program, and delivered by faculty from several key programs, including Takayama (Social Work), Dr. Pamela Collins, ’07, G-’11 & PhD ’20, and Anita Harding (Interpretation and Translation); Maegan Shanks, G-’15, (International Development); Dr. Caroline Solomon (Biology and Science, Technology, Accessibility, Mathematics, and Public Health); and Dr. Geoffrey Whitebread, ’04 & G-’06, (Public Administration). Ai Minakawa, G-’21, DEP Student Support Specialist, is the newest DEP team member and the primary developer of the Summer Institute partnering activities. 

Cooper says the 2024 Summer Institute will be a very powerful initiative in several respects due to the uniqueness of the DEP Program, “and because Japan is the world leader in Deaf-led disaster preparedness and response infrastructure.” Another significant aspect of the Summer Institute is that it will showcase innovative programming that involves partnering with several deaf organizations and the U.S. Embassy in Japan to create sustainability by engaging in cross-cultural exchanges related to inclusive disaster and emergency management. 

In addition to raising attention about discrepancies in global public health and issuing a call to action to employ deaf and hard of hearing people in disaster emergency jobs, Cooper notes that the DEP dovetails neatly with Gallaudet’s “Five Grand Challenges,” particularly #2 (expanding the impact of Gallaudet’s creative edge) and #4 (creating pathways to success for Gallaudet students and graduates), as well as the University’s vision to serve as an “international resource for research, innovation, and outreach related to deaf and hard-of-hearing people.”

(Note: Partners in the Summer Institute are Miyagi Deaf Association; Fukushima Deaf Association, Youth Deaf Association, and Informational Center for the Deaf; Mimisapo (Miyagi Informational Center for the Deaf); Japanese Federation of the Deaf; Japan and U.S. embassies; U.S. Department of State; FEMA; Kibotcha Training Center.)

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