One night when he was 13, Mike Houston awakened to the sound of someone pounding on the front door of his home. Houston woke his parents, both of whom are deaf, and they opened the door to a sheriff who reported that a train carrying chemicals had derailed nearby. As a precaution, the neighborhood was going to be evacuated. Using American Sign Language (ASL), Mike was able to inform his parents. However, with a child’s perspective and vocabulary, he panicked and signed, “We’re all going to die!”
His parents came to realize the imminent danger, but this experience taught Houston the importance of getting the right information to people with disabilities during an emergency.
When disaster strikes, Houston, now one of 15 FEMA Disability Integration Advisors in New York, is someone who ensures that disaster survivors with access and functional needs have equal access to and receive equal benefit from FEMA’s assistance programs. Disability Integration Specialists and Advisors work with other government agencies, voluntary organizations and the disability community to accomplish this goal.
Part of Houston’s job is to travel to Disaster Recovery Centers, where survivors go to speak with recovery specialists face-to-face, and train staff members on how to use disaster kits. These kits are in every Disaster Recovery Center and include amplifiers and assistive listening devices for people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, CapTel phones that display text, and iPads with Video Relay Service, which allows survivors who use ASL to register while communicating on the Internet in real-time with FEMA recovery specialists.
The kits also include magnifiers for people with low vision and information in Braille. For those who are blind and don’t read Braille, audio recordings offer instructions on how to apply with FEMA.
“The accessibility equipment enables FEMA to communicate directly with the survivor,” Houston says. “We don’t have to go through a child. We don’t have to wait for an interpreter. With this equipment we can get the information to the people who need it right away.”
During training sessions, Houston reminds recovery workers that one in five Americans has some kind of disability and they should look and listen carefully to survivors to determine whether they could benefit from assistive equipment. “If they are talking to a survivor who responds with a quizzical expression, it may be that the survivor is hard-of-hearing,” says Houston. “If someone appears to be struggling to complete a form, that person might need a magnifier to see the document more clearly.”
While much of Houston’s time is spent training recovery center staff, there are times when he has the opportunity to help a survivor directly. Working in North Carolina after Hurricane Irene battered the state in 2011, he learned that a FEMA worker was trying to get in touch with a deaf mother of three who had applied for assistance after the family had been forced to move following the storm.
No one was answering the phone number provided so Houston drove to the woman’s residence. Houston arrived at the woman’s home and learned that the contact number had belonged to her daughter, who had just relocated with a new cell phone. Using ASL, Houston was able to communicate directly with the woman, and help her apply for rental assistance.
Looking back on his childhood experience of trying to get his parents out of danger, Houston is glad to have honed his skills considerably, as he now helps people with access and functional needs during disasters throughout the country.