Case Study Last Reviewed: July 17, 2020
People with disabilities must have equal access to COVID-19 information as those without disabilities. State and local jurisdictions, as well as healthcare organizations, can enhance communication access through visual symptom check cards and accessible videos. These videos may include American Sign Language (ASL)/Puerto Rican Sign Language (PRSL), captioning, voice-over, or audio description. Televised press conferences have also included qualified sign language interpreters.
The following is a list of key findings and considerations for jurisdictions and communities regarding ongoing COVID-19 pandemic operations across the country. These are best practices for consideration and do not constitute or should not be considered as guidance in any way.
This document contains references and links to non-federal resources and organizations. This information is meant solely for informational purposes and is not intended to be an endorsement of any non-federal entity by FEMA, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, or the U.S. government.
Areas for Improvement
- Effective communication access, including ASL and PRSL interpreters and captioning live at press conferences, videos with ASL and/or PRSL interpretation, and live or remote visual services at community-based facilities, are not readily available to people with disabilities in all phases of the disaster lifecycle.
- Mitigating Action: In Colorado, the Governor’s office, in collaboration with the Colorado Broadcaster’s Association worked to ensure that televised press conferences included qualified sign language interpreters, including Certified Deaf Interpreters (CDI)(Source: FEMA Interview, 2020).
- Mitigating Action: Numerous states including Rhode Island, Kentucky, Ohio, and Illinois are ensuring there is an ASL interpreter supporting the governors’ daily press briefings. Most state governors and some large urban area mayors are consistently providing a sign language interpreter and, if available, CDIs (Source: FEMA Interview, 2020).
- Some people with disabilities may not be able to use face masks due to health concerns, developmental disability, and/or accommodation. Additionally, face masks may limit access to communication for a person who is deaf or hard of hearing if the person’s primary mode of communication is lip reading.
- Mitigating Action: The Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) Mask Project has created an “accessible-deaf-friendly” mask project that provides a step-by-step guide on how to create a homemade cotton and clear plastic mask designed for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. The plastic part of the mask that covers the face showcases the mouth, which allows deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals to read lips. Additional instructions can be found on DHH Mask Project and Tutorial.
- Mitigating Action: Similarly, The Missouri Commission on Deaf and Hard of Hearing, in partnership with the State Emergency Management Agency, Department and Health and Human Services, and the Governor’s office, are providing clear masks to Missourians for free. Residents of Missouri can go to ASL Vlog to find out how get a clear mask.
Potential Best Practices
- State, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) government agencies should consider conducting self-evaluations of emergency management programs to identify communication gaps that exist when providing emergency management information to individuals with disabilities. Based on these evaluations, they should develop a plan for providing inclusive and effective communication access.
- The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Emergency Management Institute (EMI) offers a two-hour independent study course for SLTT emergency management programs to assist with including people with disabilities in disaster operations. The curriculum includes guidance on providing equal access for people with disabilities that are physical, programmatic, and may impact communication access.
- Partner with community-based organizations and social service providers to share messaging to the whole community, including individuals with disabilities, individuals with limited English proficiency, low-income populations, underserved communities, and diverse faith communities (Source: FEMA Interview, 2020).
- Crisis counseling providers may utilize the Department of Homeland Security’s “I Speak” booklet to identify individuals with limited English proficiency.
- Medical students created a plain language illustrated guide on COVID-19 to help individuals with intellectual disabilities understand what COVID-19 is and what to do if a person is experiencing symptoms. Access a digital copy here.
- State agencies in partnership with Disability Advisory Groups provided information on COVID-19 for people with disabilities in 12 languages, including ASL. Examples and resources can be found here and here.
- The New York State Department of Health developed a COVID-19 Symptom Check card for people who are deaf and hard of hearing (Source: FEMA Interview, 2020).
- SLTTs may commission a contract with organizations for qualified on-site and remote sign language interpreting services prior to a disaster to ensure access to effective communications during a disaster (Source: FEMA Interview, 2020).
- Provide step-by-step instructions about mobile or other testing sites through accessible public service announcements, noting the limitations of in-person auxiliary aids and services because of social distancing, and promote the use of video remote interpretation for individuals in need of sign language at testing sites (Source: FEMA Interview, 2020).
- FEMA provided on-going support to SLTTs and other Federal Agencies to produce informational videos in ASL. These videos provide direct access to people who are deaf or hard of hearing who use sign language. These videos are also captioned.