by Kathy Eide Casas
For a moment in time, step into the often invisible world of those living with hearing differences. ‘Invisible’ because you cannot immediately see that someone is Deaf until you interact and/or communicate with that person. Think about it for a moment. How many times have you passed a Deaf person on the street and not realized that he or she has a difference in hearing? In the linguistic and cultural minority of those who are Deaf, personal communication is key. The sense of touch takes on an extra added importance. A tap on the shoulder is integral to Deaf culture and commonly accepted by the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community. Don’t be afraid…even though it is counter-intuitive to the hustle and bustle of everyday life, take a moment and give a friendly tap…it’s really okay.
Michelle L. Bronson, M.S. encourages the power of a friendly attention-getting tap as one of the best ways to communicate. “If you want to say something to a Deaf person, you have to tap us on the shoulder,” she explained. “Though many people are afraid to touch another, in the Deaf community it is accepted. We don’t want people to be afraid of us. Make eye contact and touch us on the shoulder before you start speaking.”
Bronson, Deaf since birth, is the Executive Director of the Deaf & Hard of Hearing Service Center (DHHSC), headquartered in Fresno. In addition to Fresno, there are offices located in Salinas, Merced, and Visalia. Serving eight counties throughout California—San Benito, Monterey, Mariposa, Merced, Madera, Fresno, Tulare, and Kings—the Deaf & Hard of Hearing Service Center provided 26,452 services during this most recent fiscal year.
Their services encompass a comprehensive array of programs, assistance, education, and independent empowerment for those with hearing differences, as well as for their family members and roommates—anyone involved with the life of a Deaf and/or Hard of Hearing person. Whether services are home-based, office-based, or community-based, each day the staff works to complete all that is encompassed in their Mission Statement: “To advocate, seek equality, and promote self-determination through empowerment for those who seek our assistance; and to enhance the awareness and understanding of Deaf Culture and the unique communication needs of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals.”
Bronson, who first joined the agency in 1996, commended her staff and emphasized, “I feel very blessed to work with such an amazing team of passionate and dedicated staff who always go the extra mile to provide services to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community. I take pride in my staff because I know that they walk with every client.”
She went on to explain how her dedicated team works to ensure that each client is taken care of. “From the moment someone comes in the door until the moment the services end, my staff is with them the whole time. It’s not just giving someone the information and telling them, ‘good luck, here’s the info;’ we work with the individual from the very beginning, and we make sure that every individual gets the service they need, in a visual, accessible language. That way, Deaf individuals are empowered to make their own decisions and that’s the HEART of our services. I’m very proud of our staff for that.”
The Deaf & Hard of Hearing Service Center is centered around the following core services:
Communication Services (including Interpreting)
Independent Living Skills Instruction
Job Development & Placement Assistance
Information & Referral
Yet, these core services are just the beginning! There is so much more that they provide, from ensuring that family members can learn American Sign Language (ASL), to training the Deaf and Hard of Hearing to become job-ready, to making certain that those in rural areas have access to the same services as urban clients.
Empowering Deaf youth is another area of passion for those at the DHHSC. Staff travels to schools where there are Deaf and Hard of Hearing programs. They work with the teachers and the students so everyone is informed about how to get into college and the ensuing opportunities. “There are scholarships and financial aid available and we want to make sure they know that,” Michelle emphasized. “We want Deaf and Hard of Hearing kids to know they can go to college and [find] work. We want them to feel proud of themselves and who they are. We do not want anyone to fall through the cracks, and we are constantly working on developing programs to close the gaps. For example, many Deaf and Hard of Hearing youth struggle with literacy. DHHSC has developed a literacy program so kids, college students, and adults can take classes to improve their literary skills. Learning, refreshing, and improving their skills is critical to independence and empowerment.”
Funding for the non-profit DHHSC comes from a variety of sources and community involvement remains important. Coming up on November 19 is the 27th Annual Valley Deaf Festival, which will be held at the Fresno Fairgrounds from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. This year’s theme is “A Deaf Renaissance Faire,” and more information can be found here: www.dhhsc.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Renaissance2016.pdf During the event attendees will enjoy entertainment provided by a Deaf magician, Sammy Ruiz Jr., visit informational booths, ride two large wooden horses carved by a Renaissance enthusiast, participate in activities such as archery and Renaissance-themed games, and interact with people re-enacting life during the Renaissance era as they carry out daily chores. Food for lunch will also be sold during the event. Communication will be accessible through American Sign Language and sign language interpreters.
Another important community event that DHHSC hosts each year is Martha’s Vineyard in the Valley. Woven into this day-long event will be pivotal communication education for attendees. Booths will feature time-period-relevant activities such as fishing, candle-making, farming, sewing, will-making, and operating a clothing boutique or a museum, and all communication will take place in sign language. This will be a trip back in time when community members, both hearing and Deaf/Hard of Hearing, were able to communicate successfully with each other, such as when Martha’s Vineyard was a buzzing community where both Deaf and hearing people lived and worked successfully side by side, and Deafness was not a barrier to participation in public life. In fact, Martha’s Vineyard’s sign language played a role in the development of American Sign Language. To learn more about the past community of Martha’s Vineyard and how community collaboration was shaped through the use of sign language, attend Martha’s Vineyard in the Valley, which tends to be hosted during the springtime, or go to the following Wikipedia site: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martha%27s_Vineyard_Sign_Language.