OVPD hosts deaf-sensitivity training for first-responders

Date Published: 
Feb. 2, 2018

Coastal Point • Maria Counts: Luanne Kowalski of the Deaf Community Group offers some lessons on American Sign Language.Coastal Point • Maria Counts: Luanne Kowalski of the Deaf Community Group offers some lessons on American Sign Language.The Ocean View Police Department has teamed up with deaf community members to host a joint public safety training seminar with local first-responders.

“We have a policy for communicating with people with disabilities,” said Ocean View Police Chief Ken McLaughlin. “It’s a formal written policy. As a policy, we have to provide a training component to go along with it. We’re also required by federal law, through the ADA, to offer these services, and there’s a training component associated with that.”

At the training, law-enforcement officers, EMS and fire fighters were able to learn about deaf culture, act out scenarios and even learn a little bit of American Sign Language (ASL).

The training was conducted by members of the Delaware Deaf Senior Citizens of Sussex County.

“We have had a number of deaf people move to this community,” said Barbara White, one of the instructors, who also serves as the secretary of the Delaware Deaf Senior Citizens of Sussex County.

Sherry Duhon, a retired professor from Gallaudet University, taught the attendees about deaf culture.

“In America, there are 28 million people who have a hearing loss,” she said to the group. “Two million of that 28 million are deaf, like myself. Here in this community… [there are] about 70 deaf residents. Of course, in the summertime, you have to double that number or even triple that number.”

Duhon taught them the proper ways to get the attention of deaf individuals, such as tapping, using vibrations through tapping a table, or switching lights on and off.

There are a number of ways to communicate with a deaf person — including ASL, writing and body language/gestures. Officers took part in scenarios, such as a house fire, medical emergency and traffic stop. Duhon also emphasized that emergency-services personnel should never use family members to help translate.

Duhon said it would be nice for emergency personnel to keep a dry-erase board in their vehicles to be prepared to communicate with those who are hearing-impaired; however, she said she also knows many prefer to use paper and pen or pencil.

Also during the training, attendees were taught a bit of ASL, compliments of instructor Luanne Kowalski.

There was also discussion related to stopping a deaf individual walking or running in the opposite direction of law-enforcement — not necessarily because they’ve committed a crime, but just because they unaware the police want them to stop.

“What’s the crime?” asked PFC Nick Harrington, to which Duhon suggested as an example shoplifting from a store in Bethany Beach.

“Just like any other normal person running from us that’s not going to stop,” said Harrington. “Tackle them, tase them, spray them… It doesn’t matter if they’re deaf or not. If they’re not stopping, unfortunately, they’re running from the police.”

“I think the hardest thing is, if you don’t know if that person is deaf or not, or why they’re running… In the world we live in today, being a police officer, I don’t think there’s any of us working the road who wants to walk up to a subject and tap them to wait for that person to turn around to either strike us or injure us,” said OVPD Officer Troy Bowden. “It’s a gray area. There’s not a right or wrong way to do it.”

McLaughlin noted that he has been an officer for nearly 28 years and has only had two encounters with deaf individuals.

“One hundred percent of the people who have ever fled from me could hear,” he said. “So the natural assumption for me is, if someone is fleeing from me, they can hear me. It’s a very difficult situation for the police officer to be in.”

While representatives from the Bethany Beach Fire Department, Ocean View Police Department Sussex County EMS and Sussex County Sheriff’s Department participated in the nearly two-hour training, McLaughlin said he hopes similar training can be given throughout the state.

“I think this is something we need to expand upon. I’d love to see this get out across the state, with every law-enforcement officer receiving a similar-type course,” he said, adding it would be great to have the course taught at the academy level.

The instructors of the class said they were pleased with the response from the emergency-services personnel to the training.

“I think we learned today that deafness is not a disability, it’s a language issue. It’s just like any other linguistic minority,” said Kowalski. “I’m thrilled with the response and enthusiasm — not just from the police, fire and EMS but also just in general from the community. It’s a friendly, responsive community.”

“I feel that the looks from the faces, their involvement in the role-playing … and now they’re staying and chatting with each other — I think that’s really good for the community police engagement,” added White.

“I want them to leave knowing it’s not just about them. It’s about us and them working together to keep this place safe, for the police officers, EMTs, firefighters and us,” added Duhon. “It takes a village… I think today demonstrates the unity we have between the public-safety personnel and the deaf community. I felt so comfortable. I didn’t feel worried or anything. It felt like family. I know I’m safe with them, because they listened to us.”

Duhon said collaboration is essential, as many professionals don’t necessarily work with deaf individuals.

“Many professionals out there — doctors, lawyers — they know what’s best for us without asking us. Ask us so we can work together with you all for the betterment of our community. It’s a no-brainer.”

There are, however, many area businesses that have embraced the growing deaf community, said White, noting that the Clayton Theatre in Dagsboro now offers movies with closed captioning.

“That just shows that the community is welcoming us and that we need to reach out as well. It’s a team effort,” she said.

Other businesses, including Giant, Fish Tales and Hooked Up, have been welcoming as well, she noted.

“The message from us is that access is so important, communication is critical,” added Kowalski.

The training was the first of its kind in the state of Delaware, and even received national attention — including a story in the Seattle Times newspaper.

“It was important for me to have a deaf person teach the class. I didn’t just want me or [Capt. Heath Hall] putting together a curriculum and stand up there reading off of a piece of paper and a PowerPoint, telling everyone about deaf people,” said McLaughlin. “It’s important for them to come here and teach the class. I thought it was a very positive experience.”