The Tampa Bay area is home to one of the nation's largest deaf and hard of hearing populations. Advocates wonder why it isn't more accessible.

Advocates and members of the deaf and hard of hearing community say Text 911 is just the first of many needed steps. There is still a long way to go toward making the Tampa Bay area accessible.
Published January 2
Updated January 10

Chris Littlewood was as excited as anyone has ever been to tell 911 that his son was choking.

Okay, his son wasn’t really choking. Littlewood, 48, magnetic and clean-cut, was standing five feet from a 911 dispatcher in the Pinellas Emergency Management building, testing the county’s new Text-to-911 capability.

He wanted the simulation to be authentic.

“This is Chris. My son is not breathing,” Littlewood texted to dispatcher Andrea Henry.

“Please re-verify your address,” Henry shot back in all caps.

Littlewood texted his address, then: “He’s turning blue.”

“Is he able to talk/cry?” Henry asked from behind her computer.

“No.”

"Okay, I will tell you what to do next.”

Then over two dozens or so texts — Henry’s hands flying between two keyboards — she walked Littlewood through how to give emergency first aid to his son while also entering their information into the emergency dispatch system. If paramedics were really on their way, they would have read those updates in real time.

There are hundreds of thousands of people who are deaf or hard of hearing who live in the Tampa Bay area, and Littlewood, is one of them. For this community, the ability to communicate with 911 in real time could one day mean the difference between life or death.

“It’s awesome,” Littlewood said after the simulation. “It’s just what we needed.”

Related: In trouble? Now residents can text 911 for help

Pinellas is the latest county in the region to roll out Text-to-911 service, joining Pasco and Hernando. Hillsborough plans to implement it by the end of 2019. But advocates say this is just one of many such services the deaf and hard of hearing community needs.

There’s still a long way to go before the Tampa Bay area becomes an accessible and inclusive place for them.

• • •

There is no way to track exactly how many deaf or hard of hearing people live in Tampa Bay — or anywhere else, for that matter.

Those with a hearing loss are a diverse community. Some are verbal, some communicate through sign language. Some were born with their condition; others acquired it later in life. Many — particularly older citizens — don’t even know the extent to which their hearing has diminished.

So when Lisa Rose, the president of the Florida Association of the Deaf, cites census data to say that the Tampa Bay area has the third-highest concentration of deaf and hard of hearing residents in the country, that’s just an estimate.

Whatever the true number, it’s still substantial. And the region has several resources dedicated to serving that community.

Among them are the Pinellas County Family Center on Deafness, which offers an array of services to children and parents of children who are deaf. The Pinellas County Library Deaf Literacy Center schedules community events for the deaf and hard of hearing of all ages. And Pasco County is home to one of the state’s small handful of deaf and hard of hearing service centers.

But such a diverse community confronts a complex set of problems.

There’s still a wide gulf between the community’s resources and its needs, said Rose through interpreter Rosa Rodriguez at the Deaf Literacy Center.

Even Text-to-911, while useful, is still an imperfect emergency option for those who are deaf and illiterate, she said.

Another of the biggest challenges facing the community is the struggle to get businesses to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Say a person who is deaf wants to make a doctor’s appointment but needs a sign language interpreter present. If the doctor’s office refuses to provide one, all the patient can do is file a complaint under the disabilities act. In order to file such a complaint in Pinellas, petitioners must embark on a bureaucratic back and forth that could drag on for weeks or months — turning something as simple as a doctor’s office visit into a headache.

Paul Valenti, director of the 10 staffers in the county’s Office of Human Rights, said the process can be lengthy because it’s important to recognize due process for both the subject and initiator of a complaint. He noted that many, if not most, complaints are quickly resolved via mediation.

He said the county is also reviewing all of its facilities to make sure they are properly accessible to all residents. He hopes the process will be done by 2019. Pinellas’ recent efforts are a sign of how seriously the county takes its commitment to serving everyone, he said.

“Most jurisdictions don’t have an office like ours” Valenti said.

• • •

One challenge grates on many in the deaf and hard of hearing community more than any other: There aren’t enough qualified interpreters.

The family of 12-year-old Emery Stalzer moved to Pinellas County a few years ago for his father’s job — and because there were services for the deaf in the county. He enrolled in Blossom Montessori School for the Deaf in Clearwater, but left after a short time because there weren’t enough kids who were deaf like him in class.

Next, Stalzer tried Cross Bayou Elementary in Pinellas Park. But that school didn’t work for him either, he said, because he couldn’t communicate properly with the classroom sign language interpreters.

“They couldn’t understand me,” Stalzer signed at the Deaf Literacy Center via Rodriguez.

Now, Stalzer, who wants to be a filmmaker when he grows up, is home schooled.

To advocates like Rose, the 12-year-old’s story highlights Florida’s desperate need for qualified classroom interpreters.

The state also does not require interpreters in schools to obtain certification from the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. Critics say that can leave some classrooms equipped with volunteers who don't have the signing skills necessary to keep children up to speed.

Will that situation ever change? A Florida Department of Health spokesman said that is a question for lawmakers. “The Department will implement any law passed by the Legislature regarding this manner,” spokesman Nick Van Der Linden said.

But that’s just one of many challenges facing those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Such residents are marginalized across the state, said Jennifer Boggess, the lead youth and family support specialist at the Family Center on Deafness.

“The public in general needs to be aware that there are deaf and hard of hearing people around them,” Boggess said. “It’s just a matter of education.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story listed the wrong organization that certifies sign language interpreters.

Contact Kirby Wilson at kwilson@tampabay.com or 727-893-8793. Follow @KirbyWTweets.

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