Point of View

Media have responsibility to make emergency info accessible to all in NC

February 11, 2014 

During severe weather, Gov. Pat McCrory has held several news conferences to guide the people of North Carolina in preparing for and dealing with the winter storm. Such information is critical for public safety. Unfortunately, a significant segment of the population could not benefit from television coverage of McCrory’s information: those who rely on American Sign Language.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, the N.C. Department of Public Safety and the Governor’s Office have worked closely over the last year to ensure there is a sign language interpreter during such news conferences. Unfortunately, in these events, interpreters were not consistently visible on TV or the Internet. There were even entire news conferences when the interpreter was not visible at all.

During Hurricane Floyd in 1999, we saw a tragic example of missed information. A deaf woman was aware of the hurricane based on what she saw on the weather map on TV; however, she missed the warnings about the flooding because that particular information was not rendered visible. Consequently, she found herself spending the next three days on the roof of her home until a helicopter rescued her.

This administration has demonstrated a commitment to “universal access” to information, both in January’s events and during McCroy’s news conference at the start of hurricane season last June.

Once an interpreter is placed at the governor’s or anyone’s side, it is up to the media to ensure the interpreter is included in the coverage. During the weather event, a video montage on national news showed three different state governors at news conferences, one of whom was McCrory.

Unfortunately, the video from North Carolina was the only one that did not show an interpreter.

It goes without saying that the better informed the public is, the more individuals can act to assure their own safety during adverse weather conditions. North Carolina’s one million deaf, hard of hearing and deaf-blind people are no different. All that is needed is for information to be visible to them – sign language interpreters and captions are effective means for rendering such information visible.

I hope in future emergencies, with the cooperation of our media, North Carolina can be another example of universal access for the residents of North Carolina and the nation to see.

Jan Withers is director of the N.C. DHHS Division of Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

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