When disasters strike around the globe, one group is typically most at risk: deaf people. Deaf people often do not have access to sirens, other auditory warnings, and media reports, and they need to navigate relief services designed with hearing populations in mind, explains Dr. Kota Takayama, director of the Master of Social Work program in the School of Civic Leadership, Business, and Social Change.

Aftermath of the March 2011 earthquake in Japan.

In the aftermath of the March 2011 earthquake that shook Japan — one of the most powerful ever recorded — Takayama was part of the disaster relief team for deaf people that went to the Miyagi Prefecture to help. But as they searched for deaf people in the shelters, they could not find any. “They all went home, even though homes were dangerous places that could collapse at any time,” he says. They had left the shelters because there was no way to communicate, which was a problem with fatal consequences, explains Takayama, who found that deaf and hard of hearing victims of the earthquake had the highest overall mortality rate.

It does not have to be this way, says Dr. Audrey C. Cooper, director of Gallaudet’s new Disability-Inclusive Disaster Risk Reduction and Emergency Planning Program (DEP), which launches this summer. Available as both a graduate certificate and a minor track for undergraduates, this is the first university-level program anywhere in the world offering disaster training focused on deaf populations. “It’s targeted to saving our own lives,” Cooper explains.

Through interdisciplinary coursework and field experience in a disaster-impacted setting, the goal is to prepare deaf leaders to work locally, nationally, and internationally on effective strategies for reaching out to their own communities. As Cooper notes, “Deaf people know where other deaf people are — and organizations in many countries know where their members are.” This insider expertise is attractive to employers, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which needs more disability integration specialists.

And it is absolutely critical to deaf disaster victims, adds Cooper, whose background is in linguistic anthropology and social work. While she was doing research in Viet Nam, the country experienced terrible flooding and mudslides. She saw that many deaf people there were not getting updates from the government. Instead, they found out information through messages that deaf clubs shared with each other via social media platforms in local sign languages. Cooper realized there was a huge need for work in the area of deaf-led disaster relief. 

FEMA with Gallaudet faculty and students.

Gallaudet is uniquely suited to create this program because of its unparalleled faculty. “Combined, we have a lot of knowledge,” says Cooper, who notes that students will benefit from expert perspectives on emergency communication, disaster trauma and  crisis intervention, climate change, organizational management, deaf-led social change, and more.

Takayama, who has worked with deaf disaster victims across Asia, will share how people can be affected in unexpected ways, especially in rural areas. He has met survivors who have told him they need to take medication, but they don’t know what it is or what condition it is for. “Their parents took care of all of their illnesses, and growing up, they went to the same doctor,” he says. “Now they’re stranded.”

So much trauma could be avoided if foreseeable issues like these are addressed, Takayama says. But that is going to require more deaf people deciding to tackle disaster planning. “Starting this program is a huge step forward,” he says. “We have to roll up our sleeves and get into it.”

Applications are accepted through May 1. Find more information here, and come to a career information session featuring DEP faculty and FEMA representatives on Wednesday, March 29 from 1 to 2:30 p.m. in the Hall Memorial Building atrium. The information session will also be available via Zoom webinar; please register in advance.

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