Auslan Communications for Emergencies

Julie Judd, from Vicdeaf's Emergency Services Interpreting Team, reports on the National Auslan Communications for Emergencies Project. Over 12 months, significant progress has been made in addressing issues that had been identified as obstacles to communicating with the Deaf community during natural hazard emergency situations. 

Many Australians will have vivid memories of the Queensland floods of 2010–11. This event marked an important step forward in public awareness of the interpreting needs of the Deaf community, due to the decision taken by the Queensland Government to provide English>Auslan interpreting at emergency-related media conferences.

In order to be effective, such decisions also require the support of media, as we discovered when some commercial broadcasters re-framed footage in such a way that the signer was cut out of the image.

There have, unfortunately, been enough natural disasters in Australia and around the world since then—including, of course, 2017’s cyclone-related devastation in the Caribbean and the southern states of the USA—for the general public to deepen their understanding of signed language interpreting.

During the floods caused by Cyclone Marcia in 2015, and again during Cyclone Debbie in 2017, Australian television audiences were fascinated by the expressive performance of Auslan<>English interpreter Mark Cave, now dubbed #SignGuy on social media.

Media attention gave Mark, who works for Deaf Services Queensland, the chance to explain the importance of facial expression and visual gestures when signing, as a means of conveying grammar and also affect.

There was similar viewer interest in the interpreting of an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter during a Hurricane Irma emergency news conference in September 2017. 

And when interpreting is in the public eye, it can highlight the importance of using trained professionals for this work. During live news conferences broadcast in Manatee County, Florida to inform residents of mandatory evacuation orders as Hurricane Irma approached, a county employee who uses ASL to communicate with a family member, but has no interpreter training, was brought in to fill a gap.

Deaf viewers, none the wiser after a garbled stream of sign spelling that appeared to warn them of ‘bear monsters’ and pizza, were left scrambling to find out what he was supposed to have conveyed to them.

With no formal training available up until now for English>Auslan interpreters called on during emergency broadcasts in Australia, there is clearly a long way to go. However, progress has recently been made on this front.

A grant was obtained last year by Australia’s state-based service organisations for Deaf people, led by Vicdeaf, from the federal government’s National Emergency Management Projects (NEMP) program, to fund the National Auslan Communications for Emergencies Project. 

Designed to improve the engagement and resilience of Auslan users in Australia’s Deaf, Deafblind and hard of hearing population, the project was delivered over 12 months by ESIT’s Julie Judd, with management by Vicdeaf’s Director of Language, Partnerships and Innovation Brent Phillips.

Julie Judd summarises the project’s aims and outcomes below:

Portrait of Julie Judd, Vicdeaf Emergency Services Interpreting TeamThe project aimed to improve the ability of Deaf, Deafblind and hard of hearing people whose preferred language is Auslan to prepare for, respond to and recover from natural hazard emergencies, by:

  • improving the ability of English>Auslan interpreters to effectively interpret live emergency announcements broadcast on television
  • improving the ability of television broadcast services to facilitate Auslan-interpreted live emergency announcements broadcast on television
  • improving the ability of emergency services to communicate with Deaf, Deafblind and hard of hearing Auslan signers before, during and after natural hazard emergencies.

Improving the ability of Auslan<>English and Deaf interpreters: training

An Australia-wide survey was conducted with Auslan<>English interpreters experienced in working in the media for natural hazard emergencies.

Interviews and focus groups were conducted with the Deaf community across Australia. Participants were asked about their communication preferences, and also their experiences during past natural hazard emergencies, in order to identify issues Deaf people face in each phase of an emergency: before, during and after.

Materials from PD workshops delivered by ESIT over the past two years were used to design a one-day foundation training program that is recommended for rollout to Auslan<>English and Deaf interpreters nationally.

In addition, a short, in-depth training course was developed, in partnership with Monash University, for Auslan<>English interpreters already experienced and skilled in working with the media on emergency announcements, as well as Deaf interpreters.

Deaf interpreters are often used in the USA and the UK, as their delivery of signed language is considered more culturally and linguistically relevant to Deaf viewers. Deaf interpreters may work off a teleprompter displaying English text (sight translating), or more commonly are ‘fed’ information visually by a signed language interpreter who can hear.

Each of the state-based service organisations has committed to supporting the participation of interpreters from their state in the training course, and in early 2017,  three interpreters (two Auslan<>English and one Deaf) from each state completed the course.

Improving the ability of the media: guidelines.

Through the interviews and focus group consultations, Deaf and Deafblind individuals reported a lack of access not only to live emergency broadcasts, but also to information televised to the public in relation to emergency situations; in particular, news broadcasts which include commentary additional to that of live media conferences.

The Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association (ASTRA) and FreeTV were consulted on the issue of including Auslan<>English and/or Deaf interpreters in live emergency announcements. Both industry bodies have now amended their notification to broadcasters on their websites to state that:

“Where an Auslan interpreter is present at a news conference or official briefing regarding an emergency, [licensees] will include the Auslan interpreter in frame where it is practicable to do so.”

Contact was also established with the ABC to explore the feasibility of having regular daily news broadcasts include signed interpreting, as occurs in several other countries around the world.

Studio view of media equipment being used in training

State-of-the-art media equipment used at Monash University to train Auslan>English and Deaf interpreters for natural hazard emergency announcements

Auslan trainer with trainees in studio

English>Auslan interpreter Mark Cave feeding information in Auslan to trainee Deaf interpreters who are practising reformulating it to ensure linguistic and cultural accuracy for Deaf viewers.

Improving services: procedures and practices

Regarding T&I services, the project recommended that:

  • a national specialist team be established to coordinate the translation, production and distribution of material for organisations involved in emergency situations, to be uploaded to social media pages and websites during all phases of natural hazard emergencies
  • T&I agencies produce video material in accordance with the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) guidelines for translating English into Auslan
  • emergency and recovery service organisations develop procedures to produce Auslan translations of prepared material, and provide English>Auslan interpreting during the response and recovery stages of emergency situations, including adherence to best practice protocols in the appointment of T/Is to ensure OH&S requirements are met.


The national guidelines, strategies and resources developed by the project were combined with related projects carried out in Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales to compile the National Auslan Communications for Emergencies website: www.auslanemergency.com.au

The site includes up-to-date and accessible Auslan and English language emergency-related resources for Deaf, Deafblind and hard of hearing Australians; state-based information on Auslan<>English interpreters; and best practice guidelines and training strategy resources for use by television broadcasters and emergency service organisations.

Julie Judd is a practising English>Auslan conference interpreter with over 30 years’ experience in the field. She holds a Bachelor of Education in LOTE (Auslan) from La Trobe University and an MA in Auslan-English Interpreting from Macquarie University, and has trained in diagnostic performance analysis (interpreting) with Northern Colorado University. In addition to coordinating the National Auslan Communication for Emergencies Project in 2017, Julie has delivered workshops and reflective practice training sessions to T/Is nationwide. Julie is currently chair of ASLIA (the Australian Sign Language Interpreters’ Association) and vice president of ASLIA Victoria.

This article was originally published in AUSIT’s  In Touch magazine, Vol 25, #3  (Spring 2017).

Published: 11/12/2017