The Take Action series highlights initiatives that are making a difference in our communities. We honor those who refuse to be bystanders.
Irma Sanchez never thought she would be at the forefront of a community movement, but fate had other plans.
When her oldest boy, Felix, now 18, was eight months old, Sanchez discovered she had a unique child. He didn't respond in a normal way to loud noises, and when she had hearing tested, it was discovered that he was completely deaf.
Most mothers would have curled up into a ball and grieved. But not Sanchez.
The South Los Angeles mother was inspired to discover the most effective way to help her son—and later her other sons, and other kids like them. Likely due to a genetic anomaly—Sanchez and her husband decided not to undergo DNA testing—she eventually gave birth to two more hearing-impaired kids, Hector, age 15, and Enrique, 11.
“All three of my sons have profound hearing loss,” says Sanchez.
When people find out their child is deaf, it’s always, ‘Why us? What can we do to fix it?’ I have found that when they have a parent that’s been there it’s really helpful.
- Irma Sanchez, Mother of Three Deaf Sons and Founder of Deaf Latinos
A fact that surprises many, though not Sanchez, is that Latinos comprise the largest minority within the deaf community in this country.
Gallaudet Research Institute figures from 2005 show that 24.5 percent of deaf and hearing-impaired school-age kids in the United States are Latino. The majority—a whopping 53.9 percent—of all deaf students in California are Latino.
Sanchez and her husband decided against getting hearing aids implanted in their sons—a decision she says her boys support.
She wanted to love them and to help them live exactly they way they were born.
Sanchez began learning American Sign Language (ASL), and she began the group Deaf Latinos—which holds a free weekly class at her home where she teaches other families and children ASL in Spanish.
“As my group, Deaf Latinos, continued, I realized there was a lack of resources and a lack of support for Spanish-speaking deaf children, and I wanted to do more,” says Sanchez.
Ultimately, Sanchez was invited to become a parent mentor in Parent Links, a Department of Education program that facilitates connections between parents of deaf children; her bilingual ability made her a key outreach person for Spanish-speaking parents.
“I am a mother of three deaf sons, and Parent Links helps me to provide service and support to parents of children between one and three years old," she said. "If they have any questions about hearing aids, language courses, education, I work with them.”
Sanchez also provides often overwhelmed parents invaluable emotional support.
“When people find out their child is deaf, it’s always, ‘Why us? What can we do to fix it?’ I have found that when they have a parent that’s been there it’s really helpful,” says Sanchez. “To me, that needs to happen to each and every parent who has a child with hearing loss. We love what we do and we love helping families."
"New parents who have a deaf baby, we always invite them over and show them how we live, and really encourage them to have an active role in their child’s education—and to educate themselves.”
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When asked about particular challenges facing deaf Latinos, Sanchez adamantly responds: “We need more resources in Spanish. If we were to have more Spanish-people in the field to explain what hearing loss is, Latinos in the field, to tell these families that their children can lead rich and full lives, it would save a lot of pain."
"My goal is to tell every family they have to be there for that child—especially mom and dad—and work to ensure their success.”
“We especially want fathers to accept their kids,” says Sanchez. “It has to do with the way the parents grew up—most of the people I work with came from very humble homes, many in Mexico."
"In their town, if there was a deaf kid or a disabled kid, they were often ridiculed," she said. "Having a deaf child brings it brings all back to the fathers; they don’t want their kids to be different. If they were to meet an older deaf person who is successful, this would make it a lot easier for them. This is what we try to facilitate.”
Sanchez says that even her husband had difficulty accepting that his three sons were deaf.
"It took him16 years! I guess I have to thank him for that, because I had to learn a new language and culture and I really grew as a woman and as a person,” Sanchez explains. “Now that he’s met successful deaf people and he’s learning to sign, he’s very supportive of me.”
Language is an important part of understanding a culture, but the obstacles have not kept Sanchez from emphasizing to her sons the importance of understanding their Mexican history.
“Their dad grew up on a ranch," Sanchez said. "He went only up to third grade. I want my boys to work for what they get."
"When they earn things, it makes them stronger and proud," she said. "My first language was Spanish, and English was not allowed at home, even though I was born here in the U.S. I don’t want my boys to assimilate, I always explain Cinco de Mayo, Christmas traditions, I took them to see some Aztec dancers, and they thought it was really cool.”
Even though others might see her boys as “disadvantaged,” Sanchez wholeheartedly disagrees.
“I want to make my sons appreciate all that they have," she said. "We want to take them to Tijuana to see the disabled children there live: Kids that sell gum on the street. We’re taking them to see how lucky they are. I want them to be good, humble men who appreciate what they have.”
Laura Vogel is a freelance write for Fox News Latino.