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Byron Shire
August 16, 2022

The floods are a story too big to tell

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And too big NOT to tell

Sigrid Macdonald is a Deaf business owner in Lismore who spent hours trying to reach members of the Deaf community during the flood events. Photo Tree Faerie.

Sigrid Macdonald says there is so much she could say about the floods that she hasn’t been able to work out where to start – here is one part of the story. 

I am a Deaf business owner of Lismore. I am a passionate and involved member of the Deaf community and my work is in the field of accessibility.

In the days preceding the flood of Feb 28 2022, I was in hospital for a surgery. I was closely watching social media, and the warnings coming from the New South Wales State Emergency Service (SES), and Lismore City Council.

Given that my business premises were in the central business district, and that I knew there were Deaf residents in the flood-impacted areas, I was concerned at the lack of Auslan interpreted emergency information, an issue that was raised during the 2017 flood response.

Accessing the right information

I contacted my Deaf friend trying to make sure they had the right information as I knew it would be completely inaccessible to them. When I didn’t hear I sent messages to Resilient Lismore, the SES and local councillors requesting that they make a welfare check and ensure that this particular resident was aware.

SES and a local councillor DID make a welfare check, however, they did not arrange interpreting – it was through pure chance that another Deaf resident who is a community worker, had also checked in at the same time and they facilitated communication as best they could.

I then contacted a number of organisations in the Deaf sector to ask if there was a plan to ensure interpreting for people during the following days.

There was no plan.

No plan.

No state, federal or local emergency organization had connected with interpreting agencies to make arrangements for Auslan access to local information to safeguard our beautiful Deaf community.

Sigrid and her family live in Dunoon. Photo Tree Faerie

Lismore LGA has the highest ratio of sign language users

You might not realise, but Lismore and surrounds has the highest ratio of sign language users in our population of any LGA in the state.

We are here.

At this point, I was extremely worried for my community. I reached out widely to my personal networks and through messenger. Three interpreters from various agencies said they were available to interpret emergency updates after they were released to the public.

They asked if I would send them the information as it came through.

A local interpreter was able to negotiate with council to upload the videos to their website posts as they became available – however with the chaos of the situation this information was not always available in a timely manner.

A dangerous and cumbersome process

This was a dangerous and cumbersome process as it was not a response to any formal procedure or policy, but rather an attempt by myself and the interpreters to fill a gaping hole in the information available to the public.

I had grave fears for my community’s safety, and spent several sleepless nights monitoring emergency updates, sending information to interpreters, and sharing with contacts on social media.

While in no way close to the experience of those physically in the path of floodwaters, the night of the first flood (February 28th) was still one of the most terrifying nights of my life.

I truly thought I was watching people’s final moments play out via social media.

Powerless to help

My heart was pounding and I could barely breathe – not knowing if my friends and family were alive – and being powerless to help them.

I was in recovery from an operation and on bed rest. What could I have done anyway?

As it turns out there were multiple Deaf people and their families across the region who were impacted by this event.

However, as I have the good fortune of my home being out of the flood zone, despite my business being completely inundated, I was initially able to monitor emergency updates

Unfortunately, our internet and mobile access was sporadic, so there were long periods over the days following the flood that we had no contact – which was anxiety-inducing as I was not able to send through the interpreting requests as quickly as possible.

What if something critical was missed?

Appalled and frightened

While I was supported in my callout for interpreting of local emergency updates by representatives from ASLIA, Deaf Connect and Sweeney Interpreting – and I deeply appreciate the work of these individuals in the days following – I am appalled and frightened at the lack of response and initiative from our public organisations tasked with producing the emergency updates for public safety.

The fact that equal access to critical information as prescribed by the Disability Discrimination Act had to be initiated and driven by a community member, untrained in emergency response is nothing short of negligence.

In a heartbreaking but unsurprising turn of events, this roundabout process had to be reproduced in the second flood, a mere month later.

The barriers to accessing support in the already difficult recovery journey continue.


This story is part of a series about People with Disability and the challenge of surviving the 2022 floods. This story first appeared in: Impact of climate change & natural disaster on disabled people.


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1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks Sigrid.
    “Lismore and surrounds has the highest ratio of sign language users in our population of any LGA in the state”. Wow. News to me, thanks for the heads up.

    ACE is not much use if the phones are down, either. I would like to also see, apart from Auslan interpreters on screen during significant announcements, accurate, real-time captions. There are many deaf and hearing impaired (especially amongst our older residents) who don’t sign and also miss critical information.

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