Disability safety: Deaf perspective

Madison MacArthur

In an emergency, timing is everything.

While they are rare, these situations require specific preparedness for a quick response. Imagine a fire starting, a tornado touching down or an active shooter revealing himself.

With each of these emergencies, an alarm is sounded, sirens begin to wail and people call out in panic. These noises give information and direction to everyone involved.

Now imagine the same emergency, but remove all noises. There are no alarms, sirens or voices.

This is a deaf person’s world, and everything is silent.

Amanda Weyant, director of Student Accessibility Services, said that Kent State does not have a special way to alert deaf people on campus of emergencies besides what is already established for everyone.

Flash ALERTS, Kent State’s official emergency text notification system that notifies subscribers of any emergency university-wide, and the University Mass Notification System, voice messages created by KSU Police Services warning of an emergency delivered to campus buildings and university-registered Cisco IP phones, are the only way deaf people can be notified.

A Personal Perspective & a Possible Plan

Kate Croteau, a senior integrative studies major, is hard of hearing. While she can hear to some degree, she still faces challenges when it comes to emergency situations.

“I can’t hear the fire alarm in my room,” Croteau said. “The alarm isn’t active in the individual dorm rooms. The light and the speaker are in the hallway, so I can’t even see the flashing light.”

This has always been an issue for Croteau, who has lived on campus since coming to Kent State. Before moving to Kent, Croteau didn’t have to worry about being alone in an emergency.

“I had never been in a living situation where it wasn’t guaranteed that someone was there to help me,” she said.

Croteau brought her concern, and a possible solution, to Student Accessibility Services (SAS).

“If you go to a hotel, there are deaf accessible rooms that are equipped with flashing doorbells and flashing fire alarms,” she said. “If those rooms are full, and they have a deaf guest come in, they have ADA kits that can hook up to the existing fire alarm. So they can put a deaf person into a different hotel room and it still be accessible.”

SAS works to provide assistance to students with disabilities on multiple levels, varying from mobility, deafness and “invisible” or mental disabilities.

Weyant said that Kent State does not necessarily have separate emergency procedures because disabled students often act exactly the same as other students when in a crisis.

SAS instead tells their students to use university systems such as Flash ALERTS and the University Mass Notification System.

Trying to Find a Solution

Jacqueline Gee, a interpreter and a lecturer of American Sign Language (ASL), has been on campus for ten years as a Kent State student, staff and faculty member.

She sees the university digitizing the campus, but in her opinion, not everyone is on the same page.

“We keep progressing a very specific group, but not all of them,” Gee said. “It seems to only be for those who speak English, forgetting about the international students and deaf students.”

Gee points out the risk behind this, as she said people living in foreign places lose any understanding of their second language during an emergency.

“That moment of confusion could be the difference between life and death,” she said.

Nick Bushek, a fire safety inspector from Kent State University, said there is a strobe light system that had to be specifically requested to be set up with the fire alarm system to cater to deaf students.

In other academic buildings and residence halls, the strobe light alerts are in the hallways. Gee said that while many deaf students frequent Satterfield Hall, they are everywhere on campus.

Gee attributes this flaw in design to the prioritization of the budget.

“We do a great job pitching and coming up with ideas, but then spend so much time rehashing them instead of doing them that nothing changes,” she said.

Through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), there is specific criteria that universities must legally meet.

According to Higher Education Compliance Alliance’s website, “the ADA provides broad nondiscrimination protection in employment, public services, and public accommodations (including many areas of colleges and universities), for individuals with disabilities.”

The website also states that “the ADA is enforced by multiple federal agencies, including the Department of Justice, Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.”

This is not the first discussion that has arisen about accommodations for members of Kent State’s disabled population. When Gee was the accessibility liaison, she dealt with a case where the university was once verbally warned by fire marshals.

A class of deaf students and a deaf professor were discovered in White Hall by the fire department still going through a lecture because none of them knew that the alarm was going off.

While there are lights that flash during the fire alarms, Gee points out that the main issue is that students, faculty or staff do not know how to react.

To solve this issue, she pitches the idea to wire colored LED lights or link TV screens and override them with specific colors for emergencies only.

Each color represents different emergencies, such as white for fire, red for tornado, orange for an active shooter, etc. This system could be put in classrooms, dormitories and buildings on campus.

Gee’s idea is to train deaf people, as well as those who do not speak English as their first language, to react to each colored light and either seek cover, get low or get out.

Gee also sees promise with using a newly introduced method of banners that announce emergencies on TV screens in multiple languages as an emergency notification system, yet disagrees with the idea that students could be alerted about an emergency occurring in a different building. This could create unnecessary panic if a student were to falsely believe that an emergency is underway in their building.  

“Even then, though you have to be in the right place at the right time, and there are places that don’t have any screens. Prime example: the bathrooms,” Gee said.

Problems with Kent State’s Current Deaf Treatment

While they exist as a minority at Kent State, deaf people are still present on campus and are students, staff and faculty.

Farah Kish-Leland, a deaf adjunct professor of American Sign Language, has taught at Kent State for five years. As a member of the deaf community, she sees an issue with the way Kent handles emergencies for the disabled population.

“We have to rely on (hearing) students (to tell us about an on-campus emergency), and that’s not good,” Kish-Leland signed. “We teach them. We should be ready. It comes down to how we can protect them.”

Students in ASL I or ASL II classes do not have as much experience with ASL as students in higher level ASL classes do. This could mean that less experienced students might not be able to correctly sign that an emergency is happening to their professor.

Kish-Leland desires a building or floor that could be appointed a DeafSpace.

The DeafSpace Project, created by architect Hansel Bauman in partnership with the ASL Deaf Studies Department at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., encourages the creation of a space that “addresses the five major touch points between deaf experiences and the built environment: space and proximity, sensory reach, mobility and proximity, light and color, and acoustics… (including) the ideas of community building, visual language, the promotion of personal safety and well-being,” according to the project’s website.

Here, the flashing light system and rolling screens would work for the deaf population.

However, a DeafSpace would require money to be set aside to look into and create the space.

Unlike Flash ALERTS, Kish-Leland proposes a text system for teachers and professors that goes above what students receive in order to prepare them for the situation.

“I fear not knowing what’s going on, not being able to protect my students,” Kish-Leland signed.

Kish-Leland, Croteau and Gee want deaf people to feel safe on campus. Emergencies happen, and all three women want everyone to know when one is underway.

“I feel like it’s kind of random chance to be honest,” Croteau said. “(A big part of being hard of hearing is) am I asleep in the right position to hear an alarm? It makes a difference what alarm is going to go off, (because) the fire alarm is louder than the tornado alarm. The tornado alarm last year was so far away I could only hear it when it was pointed at the dorm for like three seconds.

“I would have told you nothing was wrong.”  

Madison MacArthur is the safety reporter. Contact her at [email protected].