Students at The University of Texas-Pan American are assisting deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals in South Texas to live as independently as possible through a new service-learning project called Valley-ICAN.
Dr. Shawn Saladin, coordinator for the Concentration in Services for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Individuals in the Department of Rehabilitation at UTPA, along with Sonia Quintero, deafness resource specialist for Region XI-B, Communication Axess Ability Group (CAAG) of South Texas, co-developed the project in the spring 2009 semester to promote self reliance, support and empowerment for the deaf and hard of hearing in the region.
"The ultimate goal is that all people who are deaf and hard of hearing get the best quality services that can be provided so that everybody gets a fair shake in life," Saladin said.
Valley-ICAN, which stands for Valley Independent Confident Activities Network, allows UTPA students in the deaf rehab concentration the opportunity to hone their skills and become one-on-one consultants to deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals looking to reach a desired goal and achieve full inclusion into the community in which they live.
"In the back of my mind it was like, wow, I have all this need in my community that I serve and he has the perfect students with the desire to serve and help. It was a perfect fit," Quintero said. "We have the ability to match the students with the need and they need to be as close to the deaf community as much as possible, so we joined forces and worked as a team."
Through Quintero and CAAG, which is funded by the Office for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services (DHHS) of the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (DARS), Saladin's students were able to assist individuals who needed sign language, GED and reading tutoring, and other independent living training.
Often, Saladin said there is a shortage of interpreters in GED and reading programs therefore preventing individuals from receiving these imperative services. Sometimes the consumer needs a service that does not fit within the realm of any service provider, which is where Valley-ICAN can help he said.
"It is amazing for both sides, the individual and the student, when the individual suddenly realizes that they can reach a goal - that they can start to read. When they start reading all of a sudden their self esteem and self confidence starts to skyrocket," Saladin said.
CAAG of South Texas provides a number of services and resources for the deaf and hard of hearing including working with consumers with hearing loss, schools and colleges, state, local and federal government, law enforcement, public and private businesses as well as service organizations. According to Saladin, there are 8,000 deaf residents in the Rio Grande Valley. However the number of hard-of-hearing individuals is difficult to pinpoint, he said, as most would rather not admit they have hearing loss.
Student volunteers are matched with CAAG clients during Valley-ICAN board meetings, held during Saladin's practicum classes, where Quintero explains the needs of the clients. Students then meet with Quintero, whose office serves clients from Laredo to Brownsville, and the person needing the service to schedule meeting times that work best for the group of students.
"This way the person gets the help they need to reach their goals and maybe set higher goals and ultimately reach independence," Saladin said. "The students get one-on-one with deaf individuals in the community for the two years they are with me. This is the competitive edge they need when applying for future employment. This is a very strong service-learning program."
Another benefit of the program for students is they learn soft skills such as how to conduct meetings and develop monthly reports to keep track of all activities.
For Karla Ileana Pequeno of Weslaco participating in Valley-ICAN was an eye-opening experience.
"It was an opportunity to help identify the needs of the community and fill in the gaps where we could be of assistance. It was also a chance to put into action what we had learned in the rehabilitation program," Pequeno, a May graduate, said.
Pequeno, who currently works as a sign language interpreter with the Valley Association for Independent Living and begins the master's in rehabilitation counseling program at UTPA this summer, said she enjoyed working as part of a team.
"I have learned that all of us at some point in our career will not only be working on an individual basis but as part of a team in groups or committees. This gave us a chance to work on committees with official meetings, organizations, and the opportunity to educate ourselves in the process," she said.
Gabriela Sanchez, a Mission native who graduated in May with a Bachelor of Science in Rehabilitative Services with a concentration in deaf studies, said working with Quintero to develop alternative methods of reaching people in the community was a passion for her, which led her to dedicate additional time outside of the class to Valley-ICAN.
"After participating in Valley-ICAN I learned that our area needs help and resources that we alone cannot provide, but we have initiated the first steps in beginning that process," Sanchez said. "I knew this program would make a significant difference and bring positive outcomes to the Valley."
In addition to working with Quintero and her clients, the students were divided into groups aimed at helping the community in different areas. One group worked with restaurants, hotels and businesses to offer tips and advice on how to work with customers who are deaf and hard of hearing, as well as recommended the appropriate assistive technology to help facilitate communication.
"We have a group we call the restaurant group that provides formal and informal training to restaurant managers and staff on how to work with people who are deaf and hard of hearing," Saladin said. "They learn a little bit about the deaf culture, and learn what is polite and what isn't. Basically the students provide a safe environment where the restaurant staff can ask questions. They also provide a short list of basic signs."
Another group of students was involved in the development of a communication card that a deaf or hard-of-hearing person can carry with them and present should an interpreter be needed. The card also includes a brief description of the American with Disabilities Act as it relates to interpreters and important phone numbers. An additional student group focused on the topics of addictions and developed videos to stream on YouTube in which sign language was used to interpret the scripts pertaining to drug and alcohol abuse.
"Through Sonia and Valley-ICAN these students are meeting everybody and are highly sought after in this program because the majority of them speak Spanish and that is a plus," Saladin said.
Overall about 24 students in Saladin's spring practicum class accumulated more than 700 volunteer hours combined. A total of 44 students are currently enrolled in the rehab program with a concentration in deaf studies. An additional 39 students have graduated in the concentration.
Through Valley-ICAN, Saladin and the students have also developed an information bank that can be accessed by Quintero, one of 26 deaf resource specialists in the state working to address the needs of Texans who are deaf and hard of hearing.
Saladin said in his clinical topics class students can either volunteer and/or research on a topic of service providers for the deaf. The semester-long research is then presented in a 25-30-minute presentation at the end of the semester to the class and Quintero.
"Every student has a quite an extensive packet of information for all of the students and we also give one to Sonia because we are starting a clearinghouse of information for the deaf consumers who come to see her in need of information," he said.
"All students regardless of where they are in the deaf concentration are encouraged to participate. I can't say enough positive things about how the students have stepped up and volunteered," he added.
Saladin said rehab programs from universities across the country have already contacted him interested in learning more about the Valley-ICAN model including Stephen F. Austin University and Gallaudet University.
To learn more about Valley-ICAN, contact Saladin at 956/381-2387.