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Communication equity for the deaf community

March 11, 2019

ECN 911 analyst Dustin Leslie, ECN Director Dana Wahlberg, DHHSD supervisor Marie Koehler and DHHSD Director Dan MillikinFrom left, ECN 911 analyst Dustin Leslie and ECN Director Dana Wahlberg, along with Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services Division (DHHSD) supervisor Marie Koehler and DHHSD Director Dan Millikin, pose with the Access Award at the state capitol.

Indulge us for a moment: Raise both hands above your head, palms facing forward, fingers outstretched. Then rotate your wrists so that your hands wave back and forth. You just “applauded” the way a member of the deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing community would. They have no need for the sound of hands clapping, so waving hands is how they show appreciation.

That’s just one of the ways deaf people have had to adjust to a hearing world. Similarly, if they needed emergency services in the past, a deaf person would have to find a TTY phone in order to call 911 in Minnesota. But that changed in December of 2017 with the advent of Text-to-911. The ability to text a 911 dispatcher means that now, a deaf, deafblind or hard-of-hearing person can summon help for themselves or someone else in an emergency – all they need is a cell phone.

At a mere 15 months old, Text-to-911 has already been used copiously by deaf and hearing people alike. And last week at the Minnesota State Capitol rotunda, it was recognized by the deaf, deafblind and hard-of hearing community as helping to contribute to communication equity – that is, the concept that everyone, regardless of ability, should be able to gain access to the information and services they need.

It’s called the Access Award, and on their 2019 Lobby Day, the Minnesota Commission for the Deaf, Deafblind and Hard of Hearing (MNCDHH) presented it to Emergency Communication Networks (ECN) for Text-to-911. The award recognizes those who “have done notable work in increasing the accessibility of services for and with deaf, deafblind, and hard of hearing Minnesotans.”

The MNCDHH advocates for “communication access and equal opportunity with the 20% of Minnesotans who are deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing.” At the award ceremony, the MNCDHH noted that Minnesota is only the eighth state to implement Text-to-911 statewide. “Most states are doing it city by city, or county by county, but our state recognized that can be confusing for people and potentially create barriers to accessing 911 services,” they explained.

MNCDHH also praised ECN for the way they publicized the new service. After all, a service is of no use if the people who need it don’t know it exists. But ECN made sure “that their information reached people who are deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing and in a culturally appropriate way,” in partnership with MNCDHH and the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Services Division (DHHSD).

Dana Wahlberg, director of ECN, accepted the Access Award on behalf of the division. “Knowing that our Text-to-911 initiative would provide a valued service to the deaf, deafblind, and hard of hearing provided us with perseverance to forge through any challenges we encountered during the deployment,” she said.  “It is rewarding to see firsthand what a positive impact this has made.”

As Walberg signed “Thank you,” the audience erupted in silent applause, waving their hands in the air in appreciation.