Deaf people can do anything except hear.
This is the truth that Deaf Focus and everyone who works there wants you to know. Deaf Focus is a nonprofit organization that exists to fill gaps in the community for Deaf, Deaf-Blind, and Hard of Hearing individuals. Deaf Focus provides counseling services, communication support in the form of American Sign Language (ASL) classes and interpreters, and community resources for the Deaf, but the group also works hard to establish bridges between the Deaf and the Hearing communities.
In 2009, Paula Rodriguez, LCSW, noticed a void while a counselor at the Louisiana School for the Deaf (LSD): “While I was at school, I noticed that the Deaf students had so much support, but statewide, they didn’t have a lot of support for Deafness in general.” She formed Deaf Focus with the vision for “universal access to community resources, publications, and equal access to that information to be able to participate in their own community.” Part of her passion is advocating for Deaf to have equal access to communication in alignment with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Deaf Focus fundraisers help pay for such advocacy causes.
The signature annual events of Deaf Focus are: Eat Drink Sign, Run Walk Sign, Kidz Kamp, and Deaf Education Alliance. They all work to expose the Hearing community to Deaf culture and to unite the Deaf community. Deaf Focus finds ways for people to come together and offer more social options for Deaf young people and adults. Ari Latino has been working with Deaf Focus for three years, and he shares his point of view, “Deaf people can feel isolated in a hearing world. But we want to make people feel that they can come around and realize that deaf people can do everything.” Rodriguez has even created and developed a mascot named D. Love, a large turquoise foam hand in the shape of the I Love You sign in ASL. All of Deaf Focus’ events connect to signing in some way.
Although Deaf Focus enjoys their events, their main emphasis right now is with education. They are working with the legislature to get a bill passed called LEAD-K, Language Equality and Acquisition for Deaf Kids. Rodriguez explains her interest in this campaign, “Working with kids and behavior issues, I’m noticing a lot of children who are language deprived. This bill can help us monitor kids who are 0-5 and measure their language as they move through those milestones, and make sure they’re kindergarten ready. We’ve got to get parents to understand that Deaf children can develop cognitively at the same rate as a Hearing child, but they have to have a foundation of language before kindergarten.”
Deaf Focus hosted the Deaf Education Summit to support early language development and brought in actor, model, and activist Nyle DiMarco, an advocate for LEAD-K. Deaf Focus believes that sign language is a huge tool in developing communication skills for children. “Signing has been put on the backburner with the technologies that have been brought in. We don’t want to eliminate the technology, but we want to supplement it with other options. I do think that when a child is born deaf, a part of them will always be deaf. We shouldn’t take that identity away from kids. That’s a proud thing to be. Whether you choose an implant or not, learning sign language can always supplement. ASL is a language just like English is a language. You don’t need to hear to live, but you have to have language to live,” Rodriguez shares passionately.
One remarkable way Deaf Focus achieves the goal of connecting Deaf individuals to language and one another is with their Kidz Kamp. The annual summer camp takes place at Camp Istrouma and is open to Deaf children, children of Deaf adults (CODAs), friends and family of Deaf children, and anyone who wants to learn sign language. These children have a blast because they can just be kids and enjoy summer camp activities with Deaf counselors and signing games.
Rodriguez changed Deaf Focus to a non-profit in 2015 so it could live on and continue to empower others. She shares, “What we are talking about today will be passed on to others. The more people we can connect with might mean the one child we help or the one family we enlighten.” ■
*Interpretation provided by Darlene Austin for interview.
*Deaf (with a capital “D”) refers to embracing the cultural norms, beliefs, and values of the Deaf Community.