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March 28, 2004

Sign language class tailored for emergency workers

From: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, WI - Mar 28, 2004

Police, EMTs see need for skill on the job


An elderly woman had fallen in her home and needed medical attention. But the ambulance crew had no idea the woman also was deaf.

After struggling to diagnose her injuries, crew members were able to communicate with the Waukesha County woman by encouraging her to blink her eyes whenever she felt pain.

Although the situation worked out well, the experience convinced emergency medical technician Leah Stenulson that it was time to learn sign language.

So starting next month, Stenulson will enroll in a special class designed to teach police officers, firefighters and others emergency workers to communicate with the deaf at times when communication can mean life or death.

Organizers say it is the first such class ever offered at Waukesha County Technical College - and maybe the first in the Milwaukee area.

Lynn French, another emergency medical technician planning to attend, said she, too, can attest to the difficulty of trying to help patients who have hearing problems.

"It's kind of like playing charades," she said. "This will take some of the guesswork out of it."

Advocates for the deaf applaud the new college course as a significant advancement in helping deaf and hard of hearing people become fully integrated into society.

Dorothy Kerr, executive director of the Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Brookfield, often hears complaints about emergency situations in which doctors, police officers and others could not speak sign language.

"It is a definite problem," Kerr said.

The center estimates that Wisconsin has 350,000 residents who are deaf or hard of hearing - about 6% of the state's population.

Focusing on the basics

Although it can take years or longer to become proficient in sign language, organizers of the new college course hope it will provide emergency professionals with basic communication skills.

The course, called Emergency Sign Language, will meet for two hours every Thursday night for six weeks starting April 8. Students will learn such phrases as "What happened?" "Where do you live? and "Where does it hurt?"

Lynda Crucius, associate dean for community health at the Waukesha County campus, said it was suggested by instructors who teach traditional sign language classes, mostly to other teachers or people who have deaf family members.

After sending invitations to area hospitals, police departments and firehouses, the college got 10 students enrolled - with room for 10 more.

"There's a big population out there that could benefit," Crucius said.

The cost is $25 a person.

Officials at Milwaukee Area Technical College and elsewhere said they had not heard of any other course structured specifically to teach introductory sign language to law enforcement and other emergency professionals.

Jane Srnec, one of the instructors, said a police officer enrolled in one of her conventional sign language classes once excitedly turned up in class with a story of how he had used his new skills on the job.

"It hit home real quick," she said.

Milwaukee Police Lt. James Cleveland recounted a police call several years ago involving a group of deaf people who had been robbed on the street late at night. As Cleveland grasped for information, the one witness who could hear fainted from excitement.

"It was just chaos," he said.

Cleveland later enrolled in sign language classes and today is one of seven officers on the force who are able to communicate in that manner. He estimated that he uses his skills at work about twice a year.

Deaf or hard of hearing people, he added, often calm down and become more cooperative when they realize they are with an officer who knows sign language.

"It just smooths the bumps out," he said. "I think almost any patrol officer could see the need."

For information about enrolling in Emergency Sign Language, contact Waukesha County Technical College at (262) 691-2910.

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