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December 3, 2003

New agency seeking sign language interpreters

From: Holland Sentinel, MI - Dec 3, 2003

Deaf/Hard of Hearing Connection also looking for volunteers

Staff writer

In Michigan, about one million people are deaf or hard of hearing with about 90,000 of those profoundly deaf. That's roughly 10 percent of the state's 9.9 million citizens.

The most significant impact of hearing loss is on the way we communicate -- enter the interpreter.

"There is a tremendous need for more interpreters," said Bonnie Vokits, executive director of a new agency serving the deaf and hard of hearing in West Michigan.

In the region, the need for qualified interpreters is the greatest in Ottawa County, Vokits said.

The new agency is called Deaf/Hard of Hearing Connection and is based in Muskegon.

Created about two months ago with grants from a variety of sources, its regional coverage area includes Muskegon, Ottawa, Oceana, and Newaygo counties.

Vokits will visit Holland today to meet with area sign language interpreters interested in participating with the new agency.

She will be at the Michigan Works! office at 710 Chicago Drive at Waverly Avenue, in Suite 310, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

For more information call Vokits at (866) 384Ð4414 or (231) 737Ð4414 ext. 35, or TTY (231) 737-4463; or the Michigan Works! office at (616) 396-2154.

The Deaf/Hard of Hearing Connection plans to be an interpreter referral agency.

The agency is also looking for volunteers to assist in a variety of jobs, and knowledge of American Sign Language would be helpful.

Vokits said the agency is encouraging more people to become trained as interpreters, and is making information available about the training programs in Michigan.

"Many more interpreters are needed, in doctors' offices, in education, employment services, the legal system, mental health clinics -- they don't have enough people who can communicate," Vokits said.

In Ottawa County, an estimated 15,978 persons have some level of hearing loss. Of that number, about 2,363 are profoundly deaf.

Experts calculate a need for one interpreter per 12 deaf or hard of hearing persons.

What that means is Ottawa County needs 20 or more trained sign language interpreters -- it has about eight and most are employed by area schools and colleges.

For people who communicate primarily by American Sign Language, interpreters are a critical link to the hearing world. For those who cannot hear, interpreters make the spoken word visible. They also give audible voice to the language of the deaf person.

Vokits is a social worker and herself hard of hearing. Her own personal experiences led her to become an advocate for the deaf. She learned sign language as an adult, and created a Bible study group for the deaf at a Muskegon church.

Along with providing interpreter referrals, the new agency will offer job coaches and training, and assistive listening devices for loan to people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

The agency will strive to develop community awareness, facilitate compliance with the American Disabilities Act, create positive options for deaf or hard of hearing adolescents, and develop a support network for families and professionals working with these people.

The non-profit agency was created with the help of a $74,600 grant for staffing costs from the Michigan Department of Career Development, plus $17,000 for equipment.

Other contributions include $10,000 from Community Foundation for Muskegon County, $5,000 from Grand Haven Area Community Foundation, $5,000 from Gerber Foundation, and $15,000 from Fremont Community Foundation.

© Copyright 2003 The Holland Sentinel