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Bringing American Sign Language to local weather alerts

Nearly a million people with a hearing disability in the United States do not have accessible severe-weather information from their local broadcast meteorologists

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An earlier version of this article misidentified Burglund as Burgland. The article has been corrected.

One morning in June 2000, Tara Burglund was driving through a thunderstorm on her way to work just north of Sioux City, Iowa. She could see the dark clouds looming overhead and feel the 74 mph winds trying to roll her car as she pressed on the brakes. But she couldn’t hear the cracks of thunder or the urgency of the severe weather alerts.

Burglund is deaf.

While she followed her instincts to pull over into a parking lot, she didn’t know what was going on. Moments later, a giant tree fell nearby, she said. If she had stayed on the road, she realized, she would have been risking her life.

Severe weather is one of the main reasons people tune in to local news stations. Broadcast meteorologists are able to share minute-to-minute details such as location, timing and storm tracks. Yet Burglund — and nearly 1 million other people in the United States — don’t get the same weather information most people rely on their local broadcast meteorologists to provide.

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“I rely on my family to interpret when there is bad weather, and when they are not home I can barely tell what is going on,” said Burglund. “Having access to the same safety as others would help so much.”

The National Weather Service has made efforts in recent years to better reach those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Weather radios are available with strobe lights or vibrating alert features for emergencies. Many cities offer storm spotter classes in American Sign Language (ASL). And national catchphrases such as “when thunder roars, go indoors” have been adapted to “see a flash, dash inside.” Weather Service meteorologist Trevor Boucher says this phrasing and imagery can benefit the hearing and deaf community alike.

But there is still a critical gap when it comes to the “nowcasting” provided on local television. ASL is the primary language for more than 500,000 Americans, and unfortunately, it’s not a language that many broadcast meteorologists are familiar with, although there are some examples. Brek Bolton, a meteorologist at Fox 13 in Salt Lake City, has been using ASL on social media for years. In the 2010s, meteorologist Robert Gauthreaux III delivered ASL forecasts for the Baton Rouge area.

In any case, the list is short, but Vivian Rennie, a meteorologist at KSBY television station in San Luis Obispo, Calif., is trying to make it easier for broadcast meteorologists to reach the community — although she’s not fluent in ASL.

“Right at the very beginning of covid, I was watching all of the press conferences and covering them,” said Rennie, who at the time was a meteorologist and reporter in Burglund’s hometown of Sioux City. She noticed many ASL interpreters on camera in the news briefings. “That was the first time I think a lot of us had seen interpreters really commonly.”

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She contacted local interpreter Dawn Habhab to talk about the importance of using ASL when communicating coronavirus safety updates and was put in touch with Burglund, the treasurer for the Sioux City Association of the Deaf and a representative of the deaf community. Their conversations initially were about accessibility in general, but weather naturally came into the picture.

Rennie wanted to know that Burglund would be safe in the instance of severe weather, and she took that responsibility personally. She asked Burglund to collaborate with her by sharing a few weather words on camera in ASL.

“I felt humble that she reached out to me in doing a presentation on ASL sign language for weather forecasts. I thought it was a great idea!” Burglund wrote.

Before the next big snowstorm of the season, Rennie, Burglund and Habhab threw together a quick video demonstrating weather signs. The video breaks down 25 key words and phrases to communicate dangerous weather situations using ASL. Words such as tornado, winds and emergency, as well as phrases such as “it’s not safe to drive now” are included. The video also demonstrates signs for different expiration times and an all-clear for when “the storm has passed.”

Rennie shared the video with a private group of meteorologists on Facebook, hoping to help get the word out to every place that the storm might affect.

“Even if you don’t know ASL, if you don’t ever plan on knowing ASL, if you don’t know a single person who’s deaf … you can do this,” said Rennie, who wants to incorporate ASL into as many local television markets as possible. “There’s no reason why any single met [meteorologist] in the United States couldn’t do this,” she said.

After sharing the instructional video, Rennie was invited to present on the use of ASL in weather broadcasts at the annual American Meteorological Society conference. Mikayla Smith, a meteorology student at the University of Oklahoma and freelancer at KXII News 12 in Sherman, Tex., saw Rennie’s presentation. Smith started learning ASL in seventh grade, but she had never considered using it in her weather forecasts until that moment. “I was like, oh my gosh, this is amazing, I can do so much with this!” she said.

About a week later, Smith put her ASL skills to the test as a winter storm was about to hit Oklahoma. She used spoken English and signs to record a video forecast for social media. She posted her video the evening of Feb. 1, and it went viral within hours. “It even went viral on LinkedIn. … I didn’t know that was possible,” she said.

Smith and Rennie have received widely positive responses. Only five minutes after Rennie’s first broadcast using ASL to communicate a possible tornado, she started receiving responses.

“I had an email in my inbox that was like, ‘Thank you so much! I’m not deaf but my dad is, and I called him through our video phone and told him to turn on your guys’ channel,’ ” Rennie said. She had dozens of emails and calls from family members after the first few days. “I didn’t realize how big of a population there was just in my area,” Rennie said.

When Smith shared a video with signed instructions on how to measure snow, she received a video from a deaf man signing to her in his backyard. “He was showing the snow at his house, and that was super cool for me. … He wasn’t speaking at all, but I could still communicate with him,” she said.

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Amid the positivity, Smith has received criticism for directly signing her spoken English words, rather than translating to a correct form of ASL.

“In the future, I’m going to make videos that maybe I have someone else’s voice, or maybe I don’t voice [at all] and I just sign in ASL,” she said. She wants to work on becoming more fluent but says she is not trying to fill the role of a trained interpreter.

Others have also experienced similar feedback on representation. “A very small handful of people in the community were actually upset because I wasn’t deaf myself,” said Gauthreaux about his experience in the past. “They preferred to see an actual deaf meteorologist report the weather. Hopefully that time will come.”

Burglund said she would love to see interpreters alongside meteorologists during severe weather coverage. “Some deaf people have low English grammar. Some deaf people have bad eyes that can’t read closed captions very well,” she said.

Closed captioning also doesn’t always translate well, since English and ASL are two different languages. Not to mention the pixelated feed or the fact that meteorologists are ad-libbing; so closed captioning is often different from what’s being said on air.

“Hearing people don’t know … how important the necessities are to the deaf communities. We only want [equally] effective communication accessibility,” Burglund wrote. “I hope that hearing people would just listen to us, the deaf community, for our accessibility needs.”

Rachael Kaye is a meteorologist in Phoenix. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Maryland and her master’s degree from Mississippi State. She has worked as a broadcaster in central Illinois, Milwaukee, Wisconsin and D.C. and has storm-chased across much of the country. Her passion is making science and the natural world accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds.