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October 3, 2006

Growing deaf population suffers ‘hidden disability’

From: Honolulu Star-Bulletin - Honolulu,HI,USA - Oct 3, 2006

By Helen Altonn

Hawaii has an estimated 100,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing residents and the number is growing, says Ann Katherine "Kathy" Reimers, executive director of the Hawaii Services on Deafness.

She said there is a significant increase in deafness "as people live longer and the world is becoming noisier."

"Deafness is a hidden disability," Reimers said. "Any day or morning, anyone can be deaf, suddenly."

The expanding deaf community includes many people who don't know sign language or have technology to facilitate communication, which raises serious issues in preparing for emergencies, she said. "How will we get everybody notified and into designated shelters? Close captioning is not adequate for everyone."

Her agency is working with the state Disability and Access Board, state Civil Defense, and other organizations to form an emergency disaster preparedness task force to ensure the safety of deaf, hard-of-hearing and deaf-blind people in case of a disaster.

The planning will include logistics to provide interpreters where needed and to get more visual warning systems in place rather than only audio systems, especially utilizing text messagers and pagers, she said.

Hawaii Services on Deafness, at 1833 Kalakaua Ave., is the only organization of its type in the state. It offers programs and services to provide help and information for clients and encourages communication between non-hearing and hearing communities. The group's programs include:

» Referral to a pool of 36 American Sign Language/Tactile interpreters statewide. Most are on Oahu and are part-time. Call 946-7300 with the time and date an interpreter is needed.

» Emergency sign language interpreting service available to police, hospitals, firefighters and other first responders around the clock. Reimers set it up in 1996 so a deaf person rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night could get an interpreter.

» An American Sign Language/Literacy Program with classes to provide a common language for families with deaf and hard-of-hearing children, also established by Reimers in 1996. "The tragic reality is more than 85 percent of deaf children grow up in hearing families that never learn to communicate with them on a significant level," she said.

» A Hawaii International Sign Language Festival, scheduled in August, to "showcase the language, arts and culture of the deaf, hard-of-hearing and deaf-blind community of Hawaii and countries around the world."

» Workshops to expand career and post-secondary opportunities for deaf, hard-of-hearing and deaf-blind students.

» Free interpreted tax assistance through the federal tax assistance program.

» Locating and providing access to resources and services for deaf, hard-of-hearing and deaf-blind residents.

» Increasing public understanding and awareness of issues concerning deafness and deaf-blindness.

For more information, call 946-7300 (V/TTY) or see

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