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Oklahoma celebrates Deaf Awareness Week, Sept. 20-26

By Darla Shelden, City Sentinel Senior Reporter – –

OKLAHOMA CITY – Governor Kevin Stitt has officially declared September 20-26 as Deaf Awareness Week in Oklahoma.

“The purpose of Deaf Awareness Week is to increase public awareness of Deaf culture, heritage and American Sign Language, which are unique to deaf people,” said David Hankinson, Services to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (SDHH) Program Manager.

SDHH is an employment program in Vocational Rehabilitation (VR), a division of the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services, known as DRS.

Hankinson, who is deaf, is an official spokesperson for the celebration.

“Deaf Awareness is important to SDHH because there is a need to educate both hearing and deaf people to eradicate any possible stigmas to ensure the deaf community is not isolated,” Hankinson said. 

SDHH’s specially trained rehabilitation counselors are based in Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

Proficient in sign language and other techniques, SDHH counselors are required to directly communicate with VR clients across the state who are deaf, hard of hearing, late deafened, deaf-blind and those with speech disabilities.

These jobseekers may receive evaluations, career guidance and counseling, training, assistive technology equipment and devices or recommendations, and job placement assistance.

A specialized Transition program is available for high school students with hearing loss that addresses the unique issues they encounter and prepares them for work or post-secondary college or training.

SDHH staff also manage the Oklahoma Quality Assurance Screening Test program, which evaluates and certifies the proficiency of interpreters for the deaf in Oklahoma.

In 2020, 140 deaf or hard of hearing VR clients became successfully employed. These individuals became taxpaying citizens, which eliminated or reduced their need for government services and allow them to contribute to economic growth in their communities across the state.

Many jobseekers’ successes began with deaf education and social experiences at Oklahoma School for the Deaf (OSD) where bilingual staff and students communicate in American Sign Language (ASL) and English.

Also a division of DRS, OSD ensures that students meet all standard graduation requirements and provide opportunities to participate in the employment program Occupational Training Opportunities for the Deaf.

Hankinson was born hearing in Staten Island, New York and became profoundly deaf instantly after getting the mumps and measles. He was the only deaf student in school for many years.

At age 16, he began attending St. Rita School for the Deaf in Cincinnati, Ohio where he learned American Sign Language and discovered his self-identity as a deaf person. Hankinson was immersed in Deaf Culture at SRSD and decided to assist other deaf people in overcoming barriers to independence and employment. 

A successful vocational rehabilitation client, Hankinson earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Cincinnati Christian University in 1983 with the assistance of the Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation in Ohio.

He began his career in 1985 as a self-employed job coach, deaf interpreter and advocate for Deaf Rights in Ohio and contracted with Ohio BVR to serve clients in job development, job coaching, mental health services and job retention. 

Hankinson later became Director of the Communication Action Network in Toledo Ohio and worked as an independent living specialist with the Community Service Center for the Deaf in Seattle, Washington.  He later became a vocational rehabilitation counselor for the Deaf and was promoted to supervisor and then area administrator in Washington State Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.

He completed a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling from San Diego State University in 2004 while working as a VR counselor. In 2019, Hankinson accepted a job as programs manager with DRS’ SDHH unit in Oklahoma.

“It’s important to celebrate Deaf Culture, because it allows people to see individuals who they truly are and how they live in a way that is unique to them,” Hankinson said. “There is so much more to a person than whether they can hear or not.   It is wrong to focus on one’s ears or disability.”

According to U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey estimates, 8,500 Oklahomans of all ages or 5.1 percent have hearing difficulties. The data shows that 52 percent of Oklahomans with hearing difficulties, ages 21-64, are employed compared to 38.7 percent of Oklahomans with other disabilities.

To learn more about Services to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing click here, email [email protected] or call 800-833-8973 in Oklahoma City or 918-836-5556 in Tulsa.

For more information about Oklahoma School for the Deaf, visit osd.k12.ok.us or call 580-622-4900.

David Hankinson, Oklahoma DRS Services to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program Manager. Photo provided.