Joelene Orlando shares a simple concept to illustrate life as a deaf person. “Imagine watching a movie with the sound off,” the executive director of WHOLE ME said. “The deaf and hard-of-hearing community needs the right tools to understand what’s going on, participate in conversation and advocate for themselves.”
Since 2003, WHOLE ME has provided tools, advocacy and education to the estimated 1,500 people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing and their families in Central New York. Starting as an afterschool program for children, the agency headquartered on James Street provides American Sign Language instruction, workforce development, college support, care coordination services, assistive technology training and community awareness events. It also offers a fee-for-service interpreting referral program.
“We try to encourage deaf people to see how successful they can be,” Orlando said. “If I have the right tools, I can be successful at my job and in my life.”
Orlando joined WHOLE ME in 2017 as associate director and shifted to executive director in May 2021, succeeding founding director Christine Kovar. A Community Foundation grant supported the agency’s leadership transition, during which Kovar mentored Orlando for six months.
“There often isn’t resources for nonprofits to use for onboarding new staff,” said Orlando. “The funding allowed for a mentoring period that helped ease my transition, which limited disruption.”
The staff of 12 – of whom 10 are deaf, including Orlando – advocate for reasonable accommodations for people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Orlando points to the ASL interpreters at local and national news conferences about COVID-19 as an example of how organizations should include the deaf community. “That was so important,” she said. “deaf people need to know what’s happening in emergencies.”
WHOLE ME’s advocates help coordinate Individualized Education Programs for students, connect families with specialists like speech pathologists and audiologists, and educate people about how to get assistive equipment. They also encourage families to learn ASL as quickly as possible.
“Language acquisition is key,” Orlando said. “Once you have access to language, you have access to everything else. Without it you can’t thrive.”
An interpreter accompanies Orlando to com- munity and networking events, highlighting awareness of communication access needs in the deaf community.
WHOLE ME also collaborates with agencies, including a Families First program for children with autism. In addition, a program with the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office teaches deputies how to approach and talk to people who are deaf. The sheriffs work directly with the deaf community to ensure they are using methods that will help keep everyone safe.
Orlando has witnessed increasing support for people with disabilities and more efforts to provide accommodations over the years. “It’s about time,” she said. “We still need to see more accessibility in Central New York.”