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December 1, 2004

Service center oasis for area's Deaf

From: Venice Gondolier - Venice,FL,USA - Dec 1, 2004

Helping hand

This is the fourth in a series of stories running every Wednesday spotlighting United Way agencies. United Way of South Sarasota County is in the midst of its annual fund-raising campaign with a goal of $525,000. Donations can be mailed to 7810 South Tamiami Trail No. A-4, Venice, FL 34293, or call 408-0595 for more information.

If you are one of more than 80,000 Deaf or otherwise hearing-impaired people in the Sarasota/Manatee County area, you need to know Chris Wagner.

Wagner, 37 and Deaf since birth, is the executive director of the Deaf Service Center for the two counties.

"There are more than 1.8 million people with hearing loss in Florida," Wagner said. "Currently, we are seeing an increase in the younger generation experiencing hearing loss, due to environmental noise exposure, loud music, workplace noise, things like that."

Wagner has been at the DSC for only two weeks, but brings with him more than 17 years of experience working with the Deaf.

Storms spotlight crucial deaf need

Wagner said a primary DSC focus is the education of government and social service agencies on the importance of ensuring equal accessibility and accommodations to individuals with hearing loss.

He said the recent hurricane season was a learning experience for Deaf people.

"We encountered the lack of captioning to emergency broadcasting, putting thousands of people in jeopardy," Wagner said. "DSC will work closely with local emergency personnel to develop a disaster plan and best-practice guide to utilize in future situations."

The barriers

Wagner said that due to the lack of awareness in the community, communication barriers make it difficult for many people with hearing loss to maintain independence in our society.

"Examples include medical or legal professionals who would refuse to provide communication accommodations, including sign language or oral interpreters to appointments," Wagner said.

He also said movie theaters and TV stations did not provide captioning, and there is an additional issue with unqualified professionals such as interpreters providing services in critical situations.

He said another reason Deaf people do not participate fully in society is because they deny their hearing loss.

The future

Wagner said the DSC has plans to expand.

"We are looking forward to establishing a program at the center focusing on the needs of children and families with members who are Deaf, or hard of hearing," he said.

The DSC also offers advocacy and education on different aspects related to Deafness. Sign language and communication strategies classes are available.

The center provides workshops and educational seminars that are not accessible in the community to people with hearing loss.

Party time

The DSC offers a variety of social activities for the community every month, including silent dinners, picnics, special functions and annual town hall meetings.

"This is an opportunity for individuals to gather together and share their experiences and enjoy activities as a community," Wagner said.

The agency

The Deaf Service Center of Manatee-Sarasota Inc. is a nonprofit organization offering services and programs for Deaf, hard-of-hearing, late-deafened, Deaf-blind, speech-impaired and hearing individuals.

DSC operates with a full-time staff of six people.

Its budget is about $515,000, 45 percent of which comes from the United Way of South Sarasota, Sarasota, Manatee and Sarasota and Manatee governments. The balance comes from fund-raisers, grants and membership drives.

Christopher D. Wagner, DSC's new executive director, was born profoundly Deaf due to his mother's illness with Rubella during her pregnancy. Wagner, 37, has a bachelor's degree from Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y.

He formerly served as an consultant and as the executive director of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services of Pasco and Hernando counties.

Wagner's background is in health-care administration. He was responsible for implementing the first deaf assisted-living facility in Florida, and the first nursing home facility for the Deaf and hard of hearing in Florida.

Wagner serves on numerous boards, including his current role as the president of Florida Association of the Deaf Inc.

Wagner's wife, Staci, also is Deaf. She is an academic advisor at St. Petersburg College.

Their two children are hearing.

For more information about the DSC, call 758-2539.

By the numbers

The approximate population of the United States of America in 2004 is 294 million.

Of those, more than 26 million people have a significant loss of hearing.

About 60 percent of hearing-impaired individuals are over the age of 65.

Thirteen million people in the United States have hearing aids.

-- Source: Hearing Alliance of America.

You can e-mail Tommy McIntyre

By Tommy McIntyre

Staff Writer

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