SPECIAL REPORT: Denham Springs leads effort to eliminate communication barriers with deaf community

Denham Springs leads an effort to eliminate the communication barrier (Source: WAFB)
Denham Springs leads an effort to eliminate the communication barrier (Source: WAFB)

DENHAM SPRINGS, LA (WAFB) - In an emergency, when time is precious and communication is key, navigating through the intense situation without the ability to hear can be hard to imagine. The language barrier between law enforcement and the deaf community is a real challenge that could have tragic consequences and now, Denham Springs is working to address the problem head on.

First responders have completed a three-day training to fill the gap and ensure they are equipped to protect and serve every part of the community— not just those who are able to hear. Denham Springs Police Chief Shannon Womack says it starts with gaining a better understanding for his officers.

"We want to make our officers more aware," said Womack. "We want them to react appropriate to that situation and make sure what they really have going on playing out in front of them is what's happening."

Every word, phrase or statement for deaf people is typically spoken through their fingertips. Because the community is so heavily dependent on their hands, Katrina Labouliere, president of Communications Consulting Group, says it is vital deaf people can get their point across if and when they encounter police.

"The situation might be heightened and they might be signing and their hands are moving rapidly and they might be using their voice or whatever it is," said Labouliere. "It's easy to misconstrue what their intent is."

Labouliere's husband has a background in law enforcement and together,  they are making it their mission to improve communication on both sides. She believes the most important takeaway from the training is to understand American Sign Language, or ASL, is its own language and that it is much different than spoken English.

"It would be the equivalent of us going to a foreign country and attempting to speak their language and try to write back and forth in their language," she added.

The classes, which offer instruction and role-playing, allows the officers to be thrust into real-life examples.

"The police officers loved it and their eyes were opened," said Womack.

Police were not the only ones involved. The Denham Springs Fire Department also joined in as well. The city is leading the charge for this type of training statewide.

"We want to go the extra step to make our public safer and feel more secure in the job we're doing as police officers," Womack added.

The biggest piece of the program is that first responders will now have access to translators with the touch of a button. Video chatting will help them bring them face to face with someone perfectly suited to help within minutes.

"This is giving them some new tools in their tool belt to be able to get the job done better," said Womack.

The effort is personal for the city's mayor Gerard Landry. He grew up with deaf parents and knows firsthand what can get lost in translation.

"We have had situations where police officers have pulled over somebody and they cannot communicate with them," said Landry. "I understood personally the difficulties of sometimes that happens when you try to communicate."

Landry says he could not be more proud that his city is leading the way in breaking down those barriers for good.

"It's just phenomenal," he added. "It really is and I'm proud as I can be that we've discovered it and found each other and are able to offer this to the folks."

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