The Free Disaster Distress Helpline Videophone for ASL Users

Content Warning: Natural Disasters

If you are Deaf, in distress because of a disaster, and need someone to talk to this is the helpline you need to know about.  

Connect with Deaf crisis workers who are fluent in American Sign Language and can support you through emotional distress related to natural or human-caused disasters. 

People who have disabilities are two to four times more likely to be injured or to die in a disaster than people who do not have disabilities, and it’s not because of their disability.*

That’s to say nothing of emotional distress caused by living through a traumatic event such as a hurricane, flood, or mass shooting. Barriers to accessible mental healthcare, emergency preparedness, and disaster relief services are just a few distress risk factors that people who are disabled, Deaf, or hard-of-hearing face throughout the disaster cycle.  

“It’s unfortunate but when disaster hits, especially in rural areas, Deaf and hard-of-hearing people seem to be abandoned and don’t have access to resources or information about what’s going on,” explained Olivia Stein, Videophone Crisis Lines Program Manager at DeafLEAD. “It’s been this way for many years.”   

Thanks to the work the Disaster Distress Helpline, and partners DeafLEAD and Vibrant Emotional Health are doing, Deaf and hard-of-hearing people living in the United States and its territories finally have access to the emotional support they need during disasters and other crisis situations.

*Paul Timmons, “Disaster Preparedness and Response: The Special Needs of Older Americans,” Statement for the Record, Special Committee on Aging, U.S. Senate, September 20, 2017, available at https://www.aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/SCA_Timmons_09_20_17.pdf. 

The Disaster Distress Helpline Videophone

The Disaster Distress Helpline (DDH) is a free, nationwide hotline that provides immediate crisis counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster. The helpline has expanded its services and is now accessible for Deaf and hard-of-hearing people via videophone for the first time ever – no American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters or captions needed.  

Since the DDH’s launch in 2012, the helpline has provided counseling and support to thousands of people in response to disasters such as the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, the Pulse Nightclub shootings in Orlando in 2016, and more recently Hurricane Ida and the Coronavirus pandemic. While the DDH is a critical resource, the experts at Vibrant Emotional Health and DeafLEAD recognized that, over the years, it has also been inaccessible to millions of Deaf and hard-of-hearing people. 

“The vast majority of crisis hotlines are set up to accommodate people who can hear, not Deaf or hard-of-hearing callers,” explained Jessie Wells, Coordinator of Best Practices in Disaster Mental Health for the Disaster Distress Helpline at Vibrant Emotional Health. “Counselors using interpreters may not fully understand the Deaf or hard-of-hearing caller’s needs or be able to communicate effectively, especially if the caller is in crisis.” 

The helpline has offered text services since its launch. While text services may seem like a sufficient alternative to hearing hotlines, they may pose other potential challenges which could deter Deaf users, including English language proficiency and those in crisis feeling like the responding chat or text counselors may not understand their needs as Deaf individuals. 

To address these barriers to care, in May 2021, the Disaster Distress Helpline launched the brand-new videophone option (DDH VP) specifically designed to support ASL-users. This helpline is staffed entirely by trained Deaf and hard-of-hearing crisis counselors from DeafLEAD who are fluent in ASL and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.  

Who Should Contact the Disaster Distress Helpline?

The Disaster Distress Helpline is open to anyone who needs it. This includes survivors of disasters; loved ones of victims; first responders; rescue, recovery, and relief workers; clergy; and parents and caregivers. You may call for yourself or on behalf of someone else. 

The effects of just one disaster can last years, or even decades. That’s why the helpline offers support any time someone is feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or in need of support – no matter how long ago the disaster happened. 

What Counts as a Disaster?

Olivia herself knows the importance of the DDH VP. While living in Alaska in 2018, she lived through an earthquake and tsunami. An emergency alert went off around midnight, warning her to move to high ground immediately and to seek shelter. Her phone was vibrating non-stop, and she couldn’t get a hold of any of her loved ones in the “lower 48” because they were all asleep due to the time difference.

“I didn’t know the area well enough yet, but I saw everyone outside rushing out of their home, packing their cars and driving out. I couldn’t get through to 911 either,” she explained. “Looking back on that experience, if I had the DDH VP as a resource, it would be the first thing I’d reach out to.”

How do Deaf and hard-of-hearing people access the Helpline?

People who are Deaf, hard-of-hearing, or prefer to communicate in ASL can access the helpline in one of two ways:

  1. Dial the Disaster Distress Helpline number: 1-800-985-5990 on a videophone-enabled device  
  2. Visit the Disaster Distress Helpline website and click “ASL Now” to connect with an agent on your computer.  

Both the Videophone and the web-based ASL Now platform, powered by CSD, are confidential. Plus, crisis counselors create private workspaces so no one can see their conversation and callers can feel safe and comfortable when communicating.

Spread the word!

Now that the DDH VP is up and running, DeafLEAD and Vibrant Emotional Health are doing everything they can to make sure Deaf and hard-of-hearing people know this resource exists. 

The people who have used the DDH VP so far have expressed how comforting it is to be able to talk to someone one-on-one. They feel a huge relief to have direct communication access, especially during a frightening, potentially life-threatening situation. 

“The DDH VP is about total communication access and empathy with someone who understands what it feels like to be Deaf or hard-of-hearing in a world designed for people who can hear,” said Olivia. “It’s thrilling to see that the DDH VP has been effective so far. I’m excited to get this resource out into the Deaf community and ASL users.” 

Take note

It’s important to note two things: the DDH is not a therapy helpline nor a logistics helpline.  

The Disaster Distress Helpline is designed to provide immediate emotional support, rather than therapy sessions or logistical support, such as where to find hotel vouchers or deal with property damage from a tropical storm. Those who call the DDH can, however, ask their crisis counselor for resources and referrals. 

These third-party resources may be useful for additional support after a disaster: 

For Deaf and hard-of-hearing people seeking therapeutic support, National Deaf Therapy is a nationwide therapy provider whose therapists are all Deaf or hard-of-hearing and are fluent in American Sign Language. 

The impact of crises may affect people in different ways. Learn how to recognize the warning signs and risk factors for emotional distress related to natural and human-caused disasters. 

About DeafLEAD

DeafLEAD is a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide comprehensive crisis intervention services to Deaf, Hard of Hearing, DeafBlind, and Late-Deafened individuals, and their families. Services include: 24-hour videophone hotline and crisis texting services, 24-hour crisis interpreting for professionals working with Deaf victims of crime such as domestic violence shelters, law enforcement, attorneys, hospitals, immigration, Social Services, and other providers working with victims of crime, cultural and linguistic intervention/mediation and support, mental health services, risk assessment and safety planning, case management, personal/medical/legal advocacy, relocation assistance and much more. For over 25 years, DeafLEAD has been committed to creating safe space for individuals with a hearing loss to receive culturally and linguistically accessible services and support. Visit deaflead.com and follow DeafLEAD on Twitter and Facebook 

About Vibrant

Vibrant Emotional Health is a non-profit organization that helps individuals and families achieve emotional wellbeing. For over 50 years, our groundbreaking solutions have delivered high-quality services and support, when, where and how people need it. We offer confidential emotional support through our state-of-the-art contact center and crisis hotline services that use leading edge telephone, text and web-based technologies and in addition to the Disaster Distress Helpline include the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, NFL Life Line and NYC Well. Through our community wellness programs individuals and families obtain supports and skills they need to thrive. Our advocacy and education initiatives promote mental wellbeing as a social responsibility. Each year we help more than 2.5 million people live healthier and more vibrant lives. We’re advancing access, dignity and respect for all and revolutionizing the system for good. Visit vibrant.org. And follow Vibrant on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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