Partnership’s deaf services rep key in passing bill to protect children
For some children, happy memories come weighted with heavier ones. For a child of neglect or abuse, the situation is never easy. As a young child, sitting down alone with a police officer to explain what’s happened is hard enough.
Now—imagine a deaf child in this situation. Without an officer fluent in sign language or a sign language interpreter, the child will have no choice but to tell their story to the officer with a parent or sibling as the interpreter. Seeing a major loophole in the law, Poppy Steele, executive director of the Sign Club Co., worked tirelessly with State Sen. Ferrell Haile to draft a piece of legislation that would start properly protecting deaf children.
I sat down with Sharon Bryant, legislation chair person for the Tennessee Association of the Deaf and a representative of the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults Deaf Services, to discuss her involvement with the bill just a few days after her retirement from the organization’s Deaf Services division.
Steele, who had worked cases concerning deaf children in situations of neglect and abuse, was contacted by Bryant and Paul Robertson, former president of the Tennessee Association of the Deaf, after they saw the bill and expressed concern about amending the bill’s language. After their additions, the bill stated that deaf children could no longer have their parents interpret on their behalf. Officials must contact an interpreter agency to provide a certified American Sign Language interpreter.
“The law needed to be clear, and now it is,” said Bryant. After her aid in revising Senate Bill 594, Bryant witnessed Gov. Haslam signing the bill into law this past June. The work she did with Robertson, Steele, and Haile produced the American Disabilities Act on Communication Effective Access for Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and Deaf Blind.
The Parternship’s Deaf Services continued their aid to deaf children by holding an educational workshop in October for ASL interpreters and law enforcement officials on what to look for in cases of deaf and abused children, and how best to respond to their particular needs—the best response being effective communication.
According to research from Gallaudet University, the world’s only university with programs and services specifically designed to accommodate deaf or hard-of-hearing students, only 30 percent of hearing parents communicate with their deaf children. For any child, enduring neglect from a parent is tragic thing, but for deaf children it creates an entirely new set of problems.
“Without communication, the children can develop language delays, emotional issues,” said Bryant. Letting your deaf child read your lips isn’t enough communication, she said, as only 30-35 percent of the words are caught, and 40-50 percent of English sounds cannot be seen on the lips. Refusing communication with deaf children can stunt their ability to flourish through signing and visual language.
Such barriers as this are part of the reason the bill came into being. Making a child comfortable enough to communicate is something a knowledgeable and qualified interpreter is trained to do, as well as understanding how best to address the child’s needs in that moment. Suddenly, it’s not so scary to explain what happened, because the environment has become a safe space rather than a restrictive one.
Bryant’s desire to become involved with the passing of this bill has effectively helped change the lives of deaf and abused children. After eight years with the Partnership’s Deaf Services, Bryant’s retirement ended on a high note: She’s made a difference.