Deaf Latinos struggle to connect with their families, and their Hispanic heritage

Bregitt Jimenez is deaf and grew up in the United States. At school, she communicated using American Sign Language, which is based on English.

When she was young, her mother only spoke Spanish, so Jimenez and her family had to invent gestures to communicate with each other.

Today, Jimenez, 27, is president of the Latino Deaf and Hard of Hearing Association of the Metropolitan D.C. Area – which is part-advocacy group, part-social network. She feels connected to her Latino roots but getting to that point wasn’t easy.

Deaf or hard-of-hearing Latino students in the U.S. face enormous language issues. In school, they're taught English and ASL. It's rare for deaf schools to teach Spanish and rarer still to teach a Spanish-based sign system like Mexican Sign Language. So for deaf students from Spanish-speaking households, the one place they are least understood is in their own home.

“I’ve met so many Latino students and asked, 'Can you communicate with your family?' Across the board, it’s no,” Jimenez told Fox News Latino in a telephone interview facilitated by a relay interpreter.

People who work with the hearing-impaired say it’s common for them to identify first as deaf – in fact, they self-identify as "Deaf," with the capital letter, because they argue that being deaf is its own culture – and second as Hispanic.

“They would say, ‘I feel my identity is strongly deaf’ – especially if they from family that doesn’t use sign language,” said David Quinto-Pozos, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and also the president of Mano a Mano, an organization of sign-language interpreters. “Their family is the family they have come to find.”

Lina, who requested she be identified only by first name, has a 10-year-old deaf son who can use a hearing aid. Because they travel to her native Colombia every year, Lina goes to great lengths to ensure he's fluent in Spanish.

Their house is plastered with Spanish words taped on objects such as "puerta" (door) and "ventana" (window) to help him with vocabulary. He loves music, and Lina transcribes the Spanish songs he sings and makes him practice articulating.

“I want him to be able to live alone, to be able to take a train, to live in the world,” she said in Spanish.

Her efforts take a lot of time, she concedes, adding that she can’t recall other families putting in as much effort to have their children learn Spanish. “I do all this because I’m worried for him. I want him to communicate with people wherever he might go.”

Hearing-impaired children make up a small population of elementary and high school students in the U.S. Hispanics, who comprise nearly 25 percent of the general K-12 student population, make up a sizeable 30 percent of hearing-impaired students. In California, they make up the majority of deaf learners.

Not so long ago, scant academic and research attention was paid to best educational practices for deaf Latinos, trilingualism and even school support for parents. Since 2010, thousands of articles on the topic are published every year.

Jimenez said the Latino Deaf and Hard of Hearing Association she heads up finds that families struggle to know what is happening with their children at school because Spanish-speaking instructors and interpreters aren’t always available.

“It’s really hard for Spanish families to grasp what’s going on,” she said.

In some schools, such as in Texas, staff to help Spanish-speaking families is required.

“While we are not able to provide Spanish-language instruction in native sign, we are fortunate that our Spanish Family Liaison program is so successful at helping us to keep the strong familial and cultural bonds of our Latino students intact,” Johnett Scogin, supervisor of curriculum for the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin, told FNL in an e-mail statement.

Lina’s son is fortunate because he attends New York City's Lexington School for the Deaf in the Jackson Heights section of Queens. Nearly half of its student population is Hispanic, and the school has a foreign-language transition class for students who immigrate to the U.S.

Many of the kids in the class are teens, and it’s not unusual for them to have extremely limited English skills. It takes about seven years for a hearing student to become proficient in the language of his or her new country, so they face tremendous educational hurdles.

“At the beginning, it is very hard. Many times students don’t know their own names and don’t know how to write their names," Lelys Barreto, one of the transition class teachers, told FNL. "They haven’t been taught, haven’t been to school.”

Speaking a different language from one's parents can pose an enormous hurdle for a non-hearing child. A hearing child is exposed to language at home, in school, in playgrounds. But for students who can’t hear and can't communicate with their families, that exposure is limited to five to six hours in school, explained Becki Krieg, another of Lexington’s transition class teachers.

Parents can find a way around the difficulties. Lina, for one, worked hard to teach her son Spanish, and she wants to learn English and then ASL to better communicate with him.

Teachers at the school, including Barreto and Krieg, send home vocabulary words for parents with ASL and Spanish terms, but when it comes to more complex conversations, it’s hard for families to communicate, and they often turn to the school for help.

“A lot of things that happen at home that students are observing but don’t understand,” said Oni Wilson, part of Lexington’s Hispanic resource team. They serve as translators for families, teachers and students. “We’ve had parents call and say, 'Can you tell our child we’re moving out of New York to another state?'”

Without a common language, connecting with Latino culture is an uphill battle. Jimenez recalled not understanding the significance of her quinceañera until she got to Gallaudet University, a Washington, D.C.,-based liberal arts college for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. There, she met other Latinos who filled her in on the customs that had seemed odd to her.

“They gave me all this information,” she said. “I finally had this communication.”