How Libraries Meet the Needs of Their Patrons: How the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative Is Meeting the Needs of the Deaf Community

by Jacquelynn Mantel

Imagine for a moment that you are a goldfish in tank. You can see everything going on outside the tank, but you have no idea what is being said or the context of anyone’s actions. For the Deaf, this is their reality. Now, imagine being Deaf, walking into a library and trying to ask for help. Perhaps you need to locate a book and have forgotten the title or author or you are trying to print out a document from your email. What if the librarian couldn’t understand you, was impatient with you or made you feel stupid? These two examples are basic situations in which library staff routinely assists patrons; for the Deaf, however, these seemingly simple transactions can be fraught with frustration and can make them reluctant to ever use their local library. One of the important functions of public libraries is to serve the patrons in their community, but what are some of the ways that they successfully reach underserved populations such as the Deaf?

ImageThis question was at the heart of a wonderful library talk sponsored by SOLIS on Friday, February 8th 2013. Rosa Rodriguez, Director of the Deaf Literacy Center, spoke to students at the Safety Harbor Public Library, where the Center is based. For the past 14 years the Deaf Literacy Center has been an asset to the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative. Some of its most popular services include basic literacy programs, signed storytimes, family mentorship, and ASL classes. The need for the program and outreach is real, as Mrs. Rodriguez illustrated for us with this statistic: 90% of Deaf people have at least one person in their family who cannot communicate with them. Also, 70% of Deaf people who graduate high school do so with a third or fourth grade reading level. According to the Deaf Literacy Center’s website, the Florida Association of the Deaf estimates that the Tampa Bay area has close to 350,000 Deaf or hearing-impaired residents, the 5th largest concentration of Deaf persons in the United States.

The need for communication was one of the main themes that kept recurring throughout the discussion. One of my friends that had taken ASL classes at USF had explained to me that ASL is its own language. I had always assumed that it was simply a way of using hand gestures that spelled or represented English words, but, like any language, ASL is imbued with its own culture. That idea did not really hit home for me until Mrs. Rodriguez began to illustrate how written words have many different meanings, and that this is one of the barriers that the Deaf face when trying to communicate with the hearing. I was also unaware of the different needs of the Deaf community, as the services they seek and prefer are not “one size fits all.” Some Deaf individuals want to read lips, some will only sign, some can hear with hearing aids, and still others want to commune exclusively with other Deaf people. The range of services needed is as unique as the individuals themselves. Mrs. Rodriguez’s presentation emphasized the desire among the Deaf to have a forum within their community where they can interact with one another, as is evidenced by the popularity of the Center’s programs. For example, at this past year’s Winter Wonderland Storytime, over 250 people came—and that was with minimal advance publicity. Tutoring, mentorship, and educational programs are in such demand that volunteers work seven days a week in outreach services. Some of the most interesting library programs and services we talked about were:

  • The special puppets that were made for children’s storytimes, which allowed for the puppeteers to sign
  • The popularity of programs teaching babies as young as 6 months old to use ASL successfully, before their ability to talk has developed
  • The flexibility with established rules that the library has shown in order to successfully adapt to the needs of the Deaf (relaxing the due date on a book to accommodate different reading speeds, but allowing only one book to be loaned at a time)
  • The Deaf Literacy Collection at the Safety Harbor Public Library, which holds over 2,000 items, including DVD movies with rich storylines that star an all Deaf cast

While Mrs. Rodriguez’s presentation was interesting and very informative, the most compelling part of the library visit was the special guests: three Deaf adults and one child who told their stories to us and illustrated how they are involved with the Center, how it has positively impacted their lives, and how they are now able to serve others in the community. It is one thing to read about libraries conducting outreach initiatives to underserved populations, but hearing the success stories firsthand was particularly moving. Mrs. Rodriguez stated that in order to make the Deaf Literacy Center successful, three things were needed: An open mind, a supportive library staff, and an accommodating administration. With this foundation in place, a public library can integrate its services and programs to be more inclusive.

A great big Thank You to Rosa Rodriguez and the volunteers at the Deaf Literacy Center for spending time with SOLIS and shedding light on the important work they do!

If you are interested in reading more about the Deaf Literacy Center of the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative, you can follow this link to their website: http://www.pplc.us/dlc/index.shtml

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