Important research is ongoing in Tuscaloosa to improve communication for the deaf and hard of hearing community during severe weather. 

Currently, in some large cities during hazards like blizzards and hurricanes, there will be a sign language interpreter next to the speaker, like a mayor or governor. “What we’re working with in Alabama is that when there’s a tornado, you can’t bring an interpreter to a press conference to give information that’s going to be in 10 minutes. You can use the internet to do that. So, our goal is to have people on standby that can be brought in using technology and accomplish the same thing they are doing in the northeast that have large deaf populations. When there’s severe weather that’s more planned, we’re trying to do it in real time. So, that’s what our grant is trying to accomplish that’s different but also that’s cutting edge and will move the ball forward,” said Darrin Griffin, UA assistant professor in communication studies.

Darrin Griffin and Jason Senkbeil with the University of Alabama received a grant funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), through VORTEX Southeast. “The goal of the research, and the grant that supports it, is to increase information flow and access to information and communication flow between weathercasters, the National Weather Service and the deaf and hard of hearing community,” said Darrin Griffin.

While closed captioning of a live broadcast during severe weather is available, this is not an adequate solution. “It is not always perfect. There’s a lot of missing information that the deaf people aren’t seeing. Maybe the local wording for that specific area is off. And then, that being English language, that’s not fully accessible for the deaf person because it’s not their first language. That’s their second language typically. With closed captioning, it runs across the screen so quick, a lot of people lose that information,” said Beth Overland.

American Sign Language is not the same as English. ASL has its own grammar and syntax and is not a direct word-to-word translation of how you would communicate something in English. 

One of the largest portions of the study is testing live American Sign Language provided by deaf people during severe weather warnings. Griffin and Senkbeil provided a focus group with a split screen recording with the on-air meteorologist during a tornado warning and a certified deaf interpreter. This was well received by the focus group. 

“When we provided that in a split screen format, usually the second it came on screen, you could see the enthusiasm in their face right away. Just to see that, made a huge difference,” Jason Senkbeil, co-investigator said. 

“If we can understand how to communicate with people who use different languages and have different levels of reading comprehension, we can actually communicate better with a broader audience. Because when you think of hearing people, they vary in their ability to decipher and interpret messages. And so, learning how to communicate fundamental information during emergencies with deaf and hard of hearing people will help us understand how to communicate with everybody,” Griffin said. 

This has been a nearly two year project and multiple entities have been a part of this research, including help from the National Weather Service, Digital Media Center, Richard Scott, a FEMA Interpreter, Department of Mental Health- Deaf Services, Department of Rehabilitation Services for the Deaf, and the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind.