DeafVibe prepares 2014 national tour

Vancouver-based advocacy nonprofit wants to open doors

By Stover E. Harger III, Columbian neighborhood news coordinator



Did you know?

Vancouver is also home to the Washington School for the Deaf, 611 Grand Blvd., which was first founded as the “Washington School for Defective Youth” in 1886. Its stated mission is to ensure “all deaf and hard of hearing students in Washington reach their full potential.”

Two pieces of DeafVibe remain closely connected

At first DeafVibe was a part of a for-profit company, setting up students and colleges with sign language interpreters for a charge, but the business was soon divided in two. However, both parts — nonprofit educational guidance and for-profit interpreting — are still tied together. National Vocational Interpreting (NVI) subsidizes DeafVibe with thousands of dollars a month. In turn, the nonprofit offers, but doesn’t require, the services of NVI to private colleges and students in need of interpreters.

Brian Bearden remains chief executive officer of NVI but has been shifting his time more toward DeafVibe, of which he is the executive director. He hasn’t made a salary from DeafVibe yet and said he no longer handles most day-to-day operations of the for-profit business. He’s wary of any implications that DeafVibe is persuading its clients to hire NVI interpreters in lieu of others. Half of DeafVibe’s current crop of students use NVI interpreters, he said.

“At the end of the day if they don’t use our interpreters, that’s fine,” Bearden said.

— Stover Harger III

Succeeding in college can be tricky, even without the ongoing struggle to communicate in a world without sound. That's why the DeafVibe Foundation wants to lend a hand.

The Vancouver-based advocacy organization, which helps guide deaf and hard-of-hearing people from all over the country while they are training in vocational schools, is preparing to take an RV on the road for its second national tour, starting in March.

Just as they did last year, Executive Director Brian Bearden, Associate Director Robin Shannon, staffers and volunteers will travel across the U.S. to spread the message that higher education is within reach, no matter how you communicate. They'll follow the annual DeafNation Expo touring trade show for 18 weeks.

When students sign up with DeafVibe, the organization is involved for the entire time the client is in a 2-year private college program, from admissions appointments to the financial aid process to post-graduation job placement.

DeafVibe was founded by Bearden, graduate of Gallaudet University, a private school in Washington, D.C., for the deaf and hard of hearing. Along with helping ensure deaf people from across the country can thrive in college and onto careers, the organization also does community outreach including hosting American Sign Language classes, and recently, a holiday open house party where Santa chatted with kids and their families using sign.

Right now they only have 10 students using the free service, Bearden said, but there are hundreds who have expressed interest, as have private colleges. Those who join with DeafVibe must check in with the organization weekly to share their progress.

Disparity of resources

Bearden said DeafVibe focuses on helping students succeed in vocational schools because those tend to have higher rates of graduates moving directly into technical careers. He said those fields require specialized training and are typically a good fit for people who can't hear, such as jobs in medical billing and coding, information technology and the culinary arts.

"But unfortunately that exact sector of the college industry is the least accessible," he said.

Bearden said for-profit schools are not as likely, compared to government-funded universities, to have disability resource departments or interpreters. Access to those services can mean sink or swim for deaf students.

Several colleges in the country have been found by the U.S. Department of Education to have violated their legal obligations to provide qualified interpreters and other related services to deaf students, according to a National Association of the Deaf report. The expense of those offerings, which can easily dwarf the incoming tuition paid by the student receiving the assistance, is ultimately the federally mandated responsibility of the institution if the student is not already receiving assistance.

"A lot of colleges know what they are supposed to be doing, but they don't do it," Bearden said. He believes that some schools will go so far as to avoid enrolling deaf students to save the costs of hiring interpreters and providing other accessibility services. "We can't force doors to open, but we can heavily persuade them." He doesn't want to point fingers, as he said many schools are supportive of the mission to provide equal education to everyone.

Now with a full-time grant writer working to raise money for DeafVibe, Bearden hopes their newly approved tax-exempt status will let them grow into their own.

With more than 80 stops planned in 42 states during their 2014 tour, Bearden said he hopes that growth will continue to happen this year as he and his small crew continue to push for increased access to career-focused education for the deaf.

"We are constantly more or less fighting," he said. "We are advocates."