One legislator has dedicated the last year to addressing what she calls the “forgotten issue”: the deaf and hard of hearing community.
Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, joined the Louisiana Commission for the Deaf a year ago, at the request of the governor, and has since advocated for the deaf and hard of hearing community. She said she has worked to make the State Capitol more accommodating for people who are deaf and hard of hearing by pushing for increasing interpreters and staff members who are fluent in American Sign Language. Closed captioning for legislative hearings has been considered, but Smith said it’s too costly for the budget right now.
“I learned things with the commission that gave me some insight as to what kinds of issues [the deaf and hard of hearing community] were having,” Smith said. “I basically just became a friend of theirs.”
In the 2017 regular legislative session, she helped lead the terminology change from “deaf person and hearing impaired” to “the deaf and hard of hearing” in the Louisiana Legislature and in the state.
Smith sponsored a bill during the 2018 special legislative session to levy a monthly 5-cent Telecommunication Tax for the Deaf, levied on residential and business wireless and landline phones throughout the state. That measure, House Bill 27, later became an act signed by the governor.
She’s pushing for legislation for the deaf and hard of hearing this regular session, as well. House Bill 199, which was approved in the lower chamber and is making its way through the Senate, would establish a task force to assess how language skills should be taught to children who are deaf or hard of hearing to ensure kindergarten readiness. HB199 was drafted after evaluation from the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and experts around the country determined the state isn’t providing enough resources for children to learn language skills, she said.
Two schools within Louisiana’s Special School District – a school for the deaf and a school for the visually impaired – are located in Smith’s Baton Rouge district.
“[Deaf advocates] are more passionate now about getting things done than they have been in the past,” Smith said. “Now, they’re much more involved in what’s going on in the Legislature because of that totality — a lot of things affect them. They’re listening in and following bills and want to be part of the process.”
Smith is sponsoring HB14 and HB474, both scheduled to be heard on Friday, April 13. HB14 would allow retired deaf educators and interpreters the ability to return to the school systems and teach.
HB474 proposes for officers to receive additional training for dealing with and communicating with the deaf and hard of hearing. She referenced a deaf man who was fatally shot by Oklahoma City Police in 2017 because he couldn’t hear the officer’s commands, and said many young deaf and hard of hearing people are scared to drive because of the potential of something similar happening to them.
Office of the Governor Communications Director Shauna Sanford said implementing ways to accommodate the deaf and hard of hearing in Louisiana is a priority for Gov. John Bel Edwards.
Sanford said the office started live-streaming press conferences at the State Capitol and off-sites and using sign-language interpreters. The office has worked with the Emergency Management Disability and Aging Coalition (EMDAC) to ensure people receive information in times of natural disasters, she said.
“There isn’t any reason to leave any of our citizens out,” Sanford said. “The information that comes out of this office is important to everyone. It’s important to make sure that information is available and accessible.”
Edwards formed the State as a Model Employer Task Force in March as a way to encourage implementing policies and strategies to help improve hiring, recruitment and retention of disabled Louisianans.
The Louisiana Commission for the Deaf, formed in 1980, offers services for over 20,000 residents, according to its website. Services include interpreting, hearing aids, general accessibility equipment, advocacy, information and referral and consumer training.