Deaf Link founder hopes award from FEMA spurs agency action
by: Mike W. Thomas Deaf Link founder Kay Chiodo hopes to expand the company's hazard alert system to states beyond Texas. The Federal Emergency Management Agency recognized Deaf Link with one of its top honors during the National Hurricane Conference in Austin earlier this month. Kay Chiodo, CEO of Deaf Link, says she was delighted to receive the award on behalf of Deaf Link and hopes the recognition will help push FEMA to do more to help her company expand its Accessible Hazard Alert System, or AHAS, outside of Texas. San Antonio-based Deaf Link, which provides interpretive services for the deaf and the hard-of-hearing, was tapped to receive FEMA’s 2009 Alan Clive Service and Spirit Memorial Award. The award is named after an advocate for people with disabilities who served for 23 years in the Equal Rights Office at FEMA. It is presented to organizations that take leading roles in improving inclusivity in emergency management, according to Elizabeth Davis, chair of the National Hurricane Conference Topic Committee on Healthcare and Special Needs. “The Clive Award is especially near and dear to our hearts and this year the honor has an even greater significance as Dr. Clive passed away at the end of 2008,” Davis says. With more than 35 million hearing-impaired citizens in the United States, 116,000 in San Antonio alone, Chiodo says it is a matter of life and death to develop systems to effectively communicate with that population during emergencies. That is what Deaf Link has done with its AHAS system, she says. Deaf Link provides video-based sign-language interpretive services to businesses and government customers via a Web cam and a secure Internet connection. The company’s service allows for two-way communication between a company employee and a deaf or hard-of-hearing customer. AHAS uses a proprietary database of contact information for citizens with disabilities to provide an individual alert notification service to subscribers. AHAS is available in signed video format for persons who are deaf or hard of hearing who use American Sign Language, or ASL; voice and text for the blind, and text for persons deaf and blind who use Braille-capable devices. AHAS gives these citizens access to emergency information via assistive devices appropriate for their disability. Unfortunately, Chiodo says, the AHAS service is currently only available to residents of Texas. About 90 percent of the people in the database live in Texas, but those who live outside of Texas cannot receive alerts unless or until their state or some other government or private entity agrees to fund the service. “Without access to this kind of information, this population is the first to become victims,” Chiodo says. “During Hurricane Ike, there were some who did not know it was coming until it hit their house.” FEMA connection Chiodo says in 2007 FEMA came to Deaf Link and asked the company to join its Intergrated Public Alert Warning System, and the company was soon providing its emergency alert services to special needs individuals in hard-hit states like Mississippi and Alabama. But then the program ran out of funds and has not been renewed. “We self-funded those states for the next four months in 2008 during a period of time when they had many heavy storms and tornadoes,” Chiodo says. “We hope that FEMA will pick this program back up and not let it go away again. The people they have in their databases trusted them and we can’t let them down.” In the meantime, Chiodo says Texas should be applauded for setting a standard that other states should follow. She says that Jack Colley, chief of the state’s Division of Emergency Management, is a strong proponent of making emergency services accessible for everyone. “Jack believes that every Texas life is worth saving,” she says. “Texas is the only state in the nation that includes all disabilities,” Chiodo adds. “Texas deserves recognition for what it has accomplished. Every Texan should feel proud that our state has taken such a strong stance.” Dr. Alton Powell, who was just recently hired to serve as president of Deaf Link, says in the meantime the company is pushing to expand its services into all of the state’s hospitals and medical facilities. He says that a lack of interpretive services can create patient safety issues, particularly in emergency situations. “Many hospitals are already set up for telemedicine and we can leverage our services off of that,” Powell says. “Any hospital that is not set up to do this is putting its patients at risk.” Powell notes that Deaf Link can be less costly for a hospital than hiring a full-time interpreter because Deaf Link customers pay for the service in much the same way that one pays for a cell phone — a set monthly fee plus a per-minute charge when the service is utilized. Deaf Link was founded by Chiodo 20 years ago under the name Vital Signs. It currently provides interpretive services in 13 states and employs 62 people.