AccesSOS brings emergency services to Deaf community

Gabriella Wong received a text from her father saying he had gotten into a car accident, and she immediately called 911 for him. Both of her parents are deaf, and she is their hearing emergency point of contact that represents a life-or-death difference for them. 

While Wong spoke to a dispatcher on the phone, she tried to figure out where her father was, but he didn’t know his location. The stress of the emergency, navigating a phone call and text conversation at the same time, and the nagging worry over what would have happened to her father if she hadn’t seen his initial text, was an immediate call to action for Wong. She needed to do something to make emergency services accessible to people like her parents, and millions of other people in the Deaf community nationwide. 

So in December of 2021, Wong launched AccesSOS, a tech non-profit that offers a location-based web app that connects individuals to emergency services via a virtual form submission that automatically translates to the language that one’s phone is configured to.

With the upcoming nationwide launch of the 988 hotline, the mental health emergency line that will go live this month, AccesSOS is also making a crucial push: moving away from contacting police as primary emergency responders in an effort to center mental health and support the decriminalization of mental illness.  

“We are shaping the future of access to emergency services,” said Wong. “I am at the intersection of exploring where 911 meets 988, so bringing in that mental health component and bringing that crisis intervention first response,” she added, explaining how connecting people to mental health resources is part of that mission of accessibility.

Around 70% of emergency call centers across the nation don’t offer a text-to-911 option, despite that one in eight people– or 30 million people– in the U.S. are reported to have hearing loss in both ears. It is up to each 911 call center to implement text-to-911 technology, so it is not yet known when text-to-911 will be nationally available. 

For deaf and hard of hearing individuals, this means reliance on hearing family members, neighbors, or bystanders for help. When emergencies are non-medical and police are contacted, there’s a risk of misunderstanding and unnecessary use of force by police too. The ACLU has reported on cases where officers have assaulted and shot members of the deaf community for not responding to verbal commands. 

“When we listen to our community members who don’t communicate in English, or hear when an armed police officer speaks out loud to them, the theme is they’re scared to use our app to contact police,” said Wong. “Imagine having a mental health emergency or having autism or any combination of identities that isn’t seen by the police. How do you get the right kind of help, especially if you’re considered a threat? Imagine being handcuffed but your only way of communicating is through your hands.” 

AccesSOS offers three contact options: fire, medical, and police services. The 988 launch signifies a fourth option that will help route individuals away from policing, which comes as AccesSOS prepares to launch an official app to go alongside its current web page. Wong said that at AccesSOS they “see the opportunity to build 988 differently. To represent the diversity, the mental health needs, and technology of today’s society.” 

For Wong, this is why advocacy is inseparable from AccesSOS. In New Mexico, one of the states that offers the least text-to-911 services as reported by the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), flyers promoting AccesSOS are posted in Spanish and English across Albuquerque. In The New Mexico School for the Deaf in Albuquerque, AccesSOS has hosted trainings on how to use its web app and handle an emergency. The organization has also offered trainings across California and next month will do the same at the DeafNation World Expo in Las Vegas.

Wong is also a co-chair of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), where she works in monitoring the different ways people contact 911 and ensures that the association is not voice-centric. It’s an effort Wong believes could save lives beyond the Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities.

A text emergency option can help non-English speakers, individuals during natural disasters when networks may become overloaded, and people in distress where speaking out loud is not a safe option, she said. A personal experience just before AccesSOS was launched reinforced Wong’s belief in its importance: she was harassed by two boys while riding the Bay Area Rapid Transit and when she tried to call for help, one of the boys tried to snatch her phone away.

“[J]ust accessing emergency services through hearing and your voice really leaves out a lot of people,” said Wong. “We strive to provide the same type of access that others can assume through calling 911. No fees, no registration, while also considering their identities to get them the right kind of help.”