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January 22, 2005

Signing at council meetings aids few

From: Dallas Morning News, TX - Jan 22, 2005

Deal to keep service for deaf, but some see need for Spanish translation

By DAVE LEVINTHAL / The Dallas Morning News

They flash a silent language for hours, never knowing who's benefiting, if anyone at all.

The remarkable skill of these sign language translators, who convert fiery Dallas City Council debates and governmentese with their bare hands, are often wasted; and with it, tens of thousands of tax dollars, too.

While rendering an exact figure is difficult, the law of averages suggests that only a handful of sign-language literate, hearing-impaired residents each year sit through sparsely attended City Council meetings.

The signers' translations go no further than City Hall's council chambers. Dallas Community Television broadcasts council meetings, but sign language translators are never shown, rendering the feed useless to deaf viewers.

Then last week, without debate, the council unanimously approved a three-year contract worth up to $125,000 to continue the in-meeting sign language translation.

Meanwhile, Dallas' Spanish-speaking population, tens of thousands of residents strong, receives no council meeting translation services – nothing in person, nothing via television or radio broadcasts.

No plans are afoot to expand city translation services to Spanish, although the new sign language contract provides for televised coverage of the sign language translators, Acting City Manager Mary Suhm said. Dallas routinely translates city documents into Spanish, provides 311 services in Spanish and features a Spanish-language version of its Web site, Ms. Suhm added.

The Dallas Independent School District has for years provided Spanish translations of its board meetings and many neighborhood gatherings, district spokesman Donald Claxton said. An on-site translator talks to audience members through headphones, he said.

"There's someone at every meeting using it," Mr. Claxton said.

Never considered

Spanish-speaking council members say they've never given the idea of Spanish translation much thought, although it intrigues them.

"It'd be very easy to provide headsets. I'd at least be in favor of pursuing this," said Ed Oakley, who represents large sections of Dallas' Oak Cliff neighborhood. Latinos make up about 40 percent of council District 3, which Mr. Oakley represents.

"Sign language is a universal language, and it's a good investment," council member Steve Salazar said. "But there are a lot of people who can't understand our meetings because they don't understand English. I've had to translate some of my community meetings myself. Spanish translation is something we should look at for the next budget."

The city's 2005-06 budget negotiation process begins this summer. Already looming is a slate of new expenses, including bond interest payments and salaries for recently hired police officers.

Regardless of the particular translation, its scope should be broad if the city chooses to invest in it, Mayor Pro Tem John Loza suggested.

"It'd be more of a benefit to have a broadcast translated into Spanish," Mr. Loza said. "I don't think it would be overly expensive.

Jesse Diaz, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens' Dallas chapter, said he hasn't received requests for Spanish translations of city proceedings, but he considers the idea worth investigating.

The federal Americans With Disabilities Act does not require governmental bodies to translate their meetings into sign language but calls for "effective communication" to be provided to disabled persons upon request.

But "what might be effective for one person who is deaf or hard of hearing might not be effective for another," said Doug Dittfurth, a program specialist for Texas' Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services.

Federal law

Under federal law, Dallas must provide alternate services for any deaf person who doesn't understand sign language but asks for a translation.

"We have no idea who is deaf or hard of hearing," said Jennifer Brewer, the interpreter coordinator for the Dallas-based Deaf Action Center, which contracts with Dallas to provide translation services. "But we go ahead and sign as if we had a full audience of deaf people."


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