BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - A bright spot during Hurricane Barry came during an emergency briefing provided by Ascension Parish leaders. It wasn’t anything officials actually said, but it was the expressive gesturing of sign language interpreter, Ari Latino, that captured everyone’s attention. Ari is deaf and works with a non-profit called Deaf Focus.
Latino’s signing landed him at the center of social media videos that went viral as even viewers able to hear were taken with his style of signing. However, Latino says the experience allows him to shed light on the group he works with, Deaf Focus.
Deaf Focus is dedicated to bridging the gap between the local deaf community and the hearing community through services like interpretation, counseling, advocacy, and community support. Latino is in charge of the group’s media outreach. That includes posting educational videos on everything from the solar eclipse to public service announcements.
“It helps them to understand our perspective, kind of bridging that gap between the two communities. That’s really what our goal is," said Latino.
Licensed clinical social worker, Paula Rodriguez, founded Deaf Focus ten years ago. She and her team have worked in the last decade to pass legislation addressing concerns about access and resources for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.
“Our vision is to create a world, or encourage a world, where deaf people have equal access to their community and to the resources in their community,” said Rodriguez.
Among their biggest goals is ensuring deaf children have access to sign language at an early age.
“For deaf children, it’s not a cognitive issue. Deaf children are born with the same cognitive ability as a child who can hear. Where you start to see a hearing child excel and a deaf child go down is that access to language and access to the world around them," Rodriguez said.
The organization also hopes to encourage people to embrace deaf culture and the deaf community.
"Deaf people are very capable. We’re just like hearing people, we just have different needs. That’s small,” said advocate, Jay Isch. “The world should embrace our differences, you know? We’re not inferior. We just sign and can’t hear. It’s an invisible disability, so it’s hard to get the general public to understand that.”
To encourage that understanding, Deaf Focus organizes and hosts community events like EatDrinkSign!, which swaps hearing servers for deaf servers at restaurants so hearing diners can better understand what it may be like for their deaf neighbors.
“We have culture and there’s nothing wrong with being deaf, it’s just a different language and a different culture and a divide there. Here at Deaf Focus, we’re trying to bridge that gap between the deaf and hearing communities. We can help them, and they can help us and we can grow together,” said Latino.
Learn more about Deaf Focus here.