Without captions, warnings about Hurricane Michael failed to reach disabled

Actress Marlee Matlin poses at the "Stand Up To Cancer" television event, aimed at raising funds to accelerate innovative cancer research, at the Sony Studios Lot in Culver City, California, U.S., September 10, 2010. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok/Files

(Reuters) – When Oscar-winning deaf actress Marlee Matlin turned to the internet to view a video warning about Hurricane Michael, she was quickly reminded that sign language interpreters are often edited out of broadcast clips and closed captioning seems to be non-existent online.

“There are 35 million deaf and hard of hearing people and it’s amazing today that there isn’t full access to them,” she told Reuters through an interpreter on Friday in a telephone interview.

Matlin drew attention to emergency communication glitches with disabled people earlier in the week, when she tweeted on Tuesday about the Weather Company’s failure to include closed captioning in reports about the approaching storm.

“Dear @weatherchannel I wanted to share this video for the thousands of Deaf and Hard Of Hearing residents in the path of #HurricaneMichael but unfortunately, it’s NOT closed captioned. Access to info is VITAL; it’s a life or death matter. Thank you,” Matlin wrote.

Matlin posted a link to a video produced by the Weather Company, which includes the Weather Channel logo on its website but is separate from the television network.

Emergency notifications about troubles ranging from life-threatening tornadoes to New York City subway delays fail to reach Americans with hearing loss because of the failure to integrate closed captioning on public address systems, she noted.

“‘There’s not so many of you, so it’s not so important for us.’ That’s the way we feel,” Matlin said.

“Everything is migrating to the internet. It’s breaking news and you bring up the website video and it’s just the clips. There is no captioning.”

Even when officials include signers at their news conferences, viewers trying to catch up to the news online later are unable to see them in edited video clips, she said.

“When they show the mayor or the sheriff, there is always an interpreter next to them, but they show a clip and then it goes away,” Matlin said.

Warning and evacuating people with physical limitations from a fast-moving hurricane requires extraordinary efforts, advocates and state officials said on Friday.

Many disabled people are low income, rely on public transportation and cannot afford private transport or temporary lodging. Those with physical limitations have difficulty with storm preparation like boarding up homes and storing water bottles. The more time they have to prepare for a storm the better, but Hurricane Michael’s rapid intensification left thousands with no escape.

The New England Journal of Medicine found “interruption of medical care” was a leading cause of the 3,000 deaths from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

Ahead of Hurricane Michael, medical treatments for chronic illnesses including diabetes, asthma and hypertension were sent in “hurricane-specific modules” to primary care health centers near the storm’s path, said Andrew Schroeder, research and analytics director for the non-profit organization Direct Relief. Each emergency medical pack contained enough medicine to treat 100 patients for 72 hours, he said.

It remains to be seen if those modules have helped, President of Florida Association of Community Health Centers Andrew Behrman said, because many of the health centers in the storm’s path lost power and were directing patients to shelters.

“There’s damage to a number of those facilities and one of them, the roof is gone, so whatever was inside of that is not going to be usable,” he said.

Florida’s Agency for Persons with Disabilities (APD), which serves about 3,000 developmentally disabled people affected by Michael, holds conference calls twice a day to check in with people during emergencies, said spokeswoman Melanie Etters. But without phone service, disabled people have no way to get in touch with specialists or authorities.

“We had to move quickly and start communicating with people rapidly to make sure people were taking action because it was moving so fast toward the coast,” she said.