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Ophelia, Emma, and the beast from the east effortful engaging and the provision of sign language interpreting in emergencies

Lorraine Leeson (Centre for Deaf Studies, University of Dublin, Dublin, Ireland)

Disaster Prevention and Management

ISSN: 0965-3562

Article publication date: 15 August 2019

Issue publication date: 11 March 2020



The purpose of this paper is to examine how the Republic of Ireland’s National Emergency Coordinating Group performed with respect to ensuring access to emergency information for deaf sign language (SL) users over the course of two emergency situations in 2017 and 2018 as a result of storms. The storms book-ended parliamentary and public debate around the recognition of the indigenous SL of Ireland, Irish Sign Language (ISL). The author explores if/how increased political awareness led to better access in 2018, and how access provision maps to best practice guidelines set out by the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI) and the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD).


This paper provides empirical insights about the asymmetrical effort that is required of a minority linguistic community, in this instance, community of deaf ISL users and their allies, to secure provision of access to emergency information that is provided as a matter of course to the wider community of hearing English language speakers. The author draws on parliamentary records, social media and print media to document the political, societal and deaf community discourse around ISL recognition and the emergencies.


The author finds that significant effort was required of deaf people and their allies to secure access to national emergency briefings in 2017, with significant improvement evidenced in 2018 for Storm Emma and the Beast from the East, in the aftermath of the adoption of the ISL Act (December 2017). The author drew on the theory of effortful engaging, which posits that unless we have greater awareness of and pro forma consideration of SLs and deaf people, the burden of work required to ensure appropriate access and participation falls on deaf people.

Research limitations/implications

There is scope for completing a 360° analysis of stakeholders engaged in the process. Further work should also include interviews with deaf community members and emergency response coordinators.

Practical implications

This paper identifies implications for emergency coordinating groups: provision of appropriate interpreting must be a pro forma element in the planning for delivery of any emergency information. Broadcasters must be required to ensure that interpreters are visible on screen at all times during live briefings: what is unseen is “unheard” for SL users. Work remains to ensure that deaf people have access to preparatory information in their language, and that they have ease of access to two-way emergency services. Emergency coordinating teams need to integrate the UNCRPD-mapped WASLI-WFD recommendations into their emergency strategy.

Social implications

Communities depend on information for their survival in times of crisis. Communication requires comprehension and interaction. For SL users, information in an indigenous SL is a lifeline in a time of crisis. This requires emergency response teams to understand that “language” is multi-modal and embed strategies for engaging with deaf communities in all aspects of their processes, with guidance from deaf community leaders and advocates. There is also a need to consider deafblind people and deaf people who have disabilities, who are more vulnerable in crisis situations.


This is the first analysis of state provision of access to information for the Irish deaf community in an emergency setting. It is one of very few empirical analyses of how deaf communities fare in emergency contexts and the first to evaluate a state’s practice vis-à-vis UNCRPD-led guidelines on best practice issued by the WASLI/WFD. The socio-political context described represents a unique period where the Irish deaf community and ISL were central to political and media discourse because of the ISL Act and the death of two deaf brothers in tragic circumstances in Autumn 2017.



Leeson, L. (2020), "Ophelia, Emma, and the beast from the east effortful engaging and the provision of sign language interpreting in emergencies", Disaster Prevention and Management, Vol. 29 No. 2, pp. 187-199.



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