Language Access: An Essential Component of Every Disaster Plan

More than eight percent of the population, or 25 million US residents over the age of five, have limited English proficiency (LEP). This can be deadly in the midst of a disaster. Whether there is time to prepare, as in the case of a hurricane, or the crisis is completely unexpected, like an earthquake, access to critical information can mean the difference between life and death.

Unfortunately, simply adding basic interpreter services to manage communication isn’t enough. While this may solve an immediate need to share warnings and directives, it will fall short when it comes to widespread effectiveness. Without careful consideration of cultural differences in managing disasters, preparation efforts are likely to be unsuccessful.

Cultural Differences in Disaster Preparation

An in-depth study of disaster preparation in LEP communities found something public agencies didn’t expect. For many LEP communities, disaster preparedness is not a standard concept. Individuals in these communities may believe that it is impossible to predict disasters and that those affected must trust to fate or God for their safety. Some cultures consider disasters to be a taboo subject, so there is no discussion among members of the community about preparing for such events.

Another consideration is the life experience of some LED individuals. They come to the US and other developed countries as refugees from war, famine, and civil conflict. After surviving these tragedies, the US feels like an exceptionally safe place. This leads to a sense of security and the belief that there is no need for disaster preparation.

Finally, some LED residents have a strong distrust of government officials, whether due to experiences in their country of origin or concerns about their immigration status. This may prevent them from seeking assistance during a disaster.

Creating an Inclusive Disaster Plan

Integrating culturally appropriate language access into disaster plans is essential for ensuring the safety of every community member. These are three critical steps businesses and public agencies should take to minimize the impact of limited English proficiency:

Translation and Localization

As mentioned, simple word-for-word translation of preparedness materials and emergency instructions will not achieve desired results. All printed documents and recorded messages must be translated by an expert in localization. This ensures the intended audience receives information tailored to cultural norms, and those nuances in language are reflected in the final translation.

Qualified Interpreters

Whether in-person or over the phone, all interpreters are not equal. In a disaster scenario, only highly-skilled and specially trained interpreters will do. These professionals can react and respond effectively to subtle cultural differences, in essence offering on-the-spot localization in high-stress interactions.

Interpreters trained in general disaster management are particularly helpful. But at a minimum, they must have the capabilities necessary to communicate medical details and concepts if they are called to assist in such a situation. Arranging for these services in advance of need is critical to any disaster plan.

Community Outreach

Finally, businesses, community organizations, and public agencies can maximize their effectiveness during a disaster by addressing language access long before a disaster occurs. As part of a complete disaster plan, emergency officials and relief organizations should make connections with LED communities early.

One common method of connecting with these individuals is targeting small, language-specific businesses in the relevant communities, such as local markets. These businesses offer a good starting point for the dissemination of information. Another effective solution is to take on partners who are already established in the community, such as church leaders. These trusted advisors can assist with sharing accurate, relevant emergency preparedness details.

Keep in mind that including language access in disaster planning benefits more than the LED community. In addition to helping those with language barriers stay safe, comprehensive communication plans reduce the chances that first responders will be put in harm’s way. Including language access as a component of a disaster plan improves outcomes for everyone who is impacted by the event.

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