BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD)– Simple things like going to the grocery store or ordering food at the drive-thru, may not be so simple to others.

These are a few of the issues the deaf and hard of hearing community deal with their entire lives.

Many in the deaf and hard of hearing community say they feel like an after thought when it comes to inclusivity and accessibility.

Community advocates Jay Isch and Paula Rodriguez have been on the forefront of leading the way to a more inclusive community.

Isch was born deaf to deaf parents in a muti-generational deaf family.

“I grew up in a household where the use of sign language was a constant. I went to a deaf private school in Vermont. That’s where I lived during the week for over ten years,” he said.

However, Rodriguez discovered she was hard of hearing in the 4th grade.

“I got by first, second, third grade and then in fourth grade the teacher started noticing that I couldn’t hear. And so, it was a teacher that pointed that out to my parents,” she explained.

It wasn’t until after high school that Isch ventured out into the hearing world. He said his community was his safe haven. He never had to navigate communicating outside of his bubble.

“But when I came out to the real world, what really impacted me, it was that life that I had growing up. I took that for granted. It was a safe environment. Everyone signed in my bubble,” said Isch. “So, when I went out in the real world, I thought, okay, I have to deal with hearing people, people who don’t know how to sign, write notes, get interpreters, all of that. It’s not necessarily a culture shock, but it’s just dealing with the world that doesn’t know anything about us.”

It wasn’t until college that Rodriguez learned American Sign Language (ASL) and got more involved with the deaf community.

“I fell in love with the language,” said Rodriguez. “They offered sign language classes and I joined their drama team and we traveled all over from state to state going from church to church doing drama and signing songs.”

Rodriguez’s grandmother was her biggest supporter all of her life.

“She was an English teacher, and she knew right away that I needed support. I needed to get some help. So she sent me to get my hearing tested. And from there, she was my best advocate,” she expalined.

Isch and Rodriguez run a community organization called Deaf Focus. The focus is to help bridge the gap between the deaf and hearing world.

“We want to bring experts and the people who need the services together. That’s pretty much what we do here. We provide what the community needs, whether it’s through interpreting, counseling, expertise,” said Isch.

The pair have walked along similar paths but have faced different obstacles in their day to day lives. Even with advanced technology, basic communication is still an issue.

“Now we have social media, you have people making videos, but there are no captions on them. It’s all frustrating. It’s the simple things that…simply adding captions. We have politicians that make videos, and they don’t put captions on their videos,” said Isch.

“If I’m going to be your customer in your store or your doctor’s office, I need to be able to understand my treatment. I need to be able to understand what you offer, if it’s in-depth,” added Rodriguez.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic,  Rodriguez said she was able to communicate easier with people by reading lips. But mask mandates made that impossible.

“It’s an invisible disability. There were some people who refused to accommodate, you know, even right back and forth or pull their mask down if they could, if there was a screen, you know, in the middle. But hopefully we can get better,” she said.

The two said there is a desperate need for language accessibility among these communities.

“I see a lot of children who don’t have language. A lot of children struggle in school and their education with their language. They’ve been deprived of language,” said Isch. “And what I see is really simple things that you need in life to have, like language access to sign is very basic and simple to allow a person to thrive just like another thriving like a hearing person can.”

They said deaf schools provide students with this type of necessity.

“Trying to suppress all the schools for the deaf, trying to repress them, saying they’re too expensive and not necessary, so they try to close it down and push all their children to be in a mainstream setting, saying, Oh, they can do fine with an interpreter and some speech therapy. They would be fine,” Isch explained “So now the children are so far behind. It’s the same vicious cycle starting all over again.”

Along with language, the deaf community wants better access to their government.

“There’s still no captioning on the screens at the Capitol, we’ve been trying to do that for the past, three or four years.  It puts our community behind and not at the ready to be able to participate in a community that we serve and in and that we pay taxes,” Rodriguez explained.

Isch and Rodriguez said the community is tired of getting leftovers.

“But really, the bigger problem is systemic, we need to have more to be more accommodating a society that is more accommodating,” said Isch.

“Work collaboratively. Rely on experts like Jay said, that know what they’re doing. Bring them into meetings,” added Rodriguez.

They agree the way to move forward is by having a more inclusive environment.

“If we all collaborate to realize that we have systems, issues or weaknesses or challenges within our systems that are not friendly and that are harmful to our deaf community, and that many of our deaf communities needs are urgent and should be taken care of immediately,” said Rodriguez. “And if we would all ban together to try to figure out how to make life better, then we’d have a better community among all of us.”

Click here for more information on Deaf Focus and the Louisiana Association for the Deaf.