In 2003, there wasn’t a space available for children who are Deaf to visit with their peers. This inspired a schoolteacher, two interpreters and a sign instructor to start an after-school program in a school cafeteria. Now, almost 20 years later, Whole Me has grown to an operation of nine staff members and they’re starting new programs all the time. They offer valuable information and social programs for deaf residents aged 3 and up including American Sign Language classes for families, care coordination for youth and seniors, workforce development and more.
In 2018, Whole Me received a grant from the Women’s Fund of CNY to support its deaf women’s group, which met once per month. During the meetings, the women discussed issues they faced such as barriers, trends, and issues revolving around accessibility in education, the medical field, social events and in the workplace.
A lesser-known fact about the Deaf population is that their first language isn’t English; it’s American Sign Language (ASL). English is their second language. This poses the same issues as when a hearing person learns English as their second language. Interpreters are the best resource for Deaf individuals to ensure communication is delivered accurately. Without interpreters, there are often misunderstandings which may result in communication breakdown. Interpreters are also for people who are hearing so that they will understand what a Deaf person is communicating, benefitting both parties involved. Whole Me offers both ASL and Deaf Interpreters (DI) for clients.
When necessary, the staff at Whole Me provides necessary resources for Deaf women with other agencies that can better assist them. They work closely with Vera House, which employs trauma-informed DIs, to hold meetings for Deaf women who are victims of domestic violence. Since people with disabilities face a higher rate of abuse, it’s critical that women who are deaf have someone who can understand them during a crisis.
An important quality of Whole Me is that when a person who is deaf walks into their office, they will likely be met by an employee who is also deaf. Unlike walking into a bank or a doctor’s office where there generally isn’t a person who knows sign language, a Whole Me employee will instantly be able to communicate their needs. 90% of Whole Me employees are deaf.
With additional funding in future years, executive director, Joelene Orlando, hopes to expand operations and services, as well as move to a larger space with outside room for kids to play during their after-school program. In the meantime, they are filling as many of the community’s needs as they are able and continue to create real change for the Deaf Community in Central New York.