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Growing Awareness

When a US state lawmaker promised to help his local Deaf community, he made a unique decision to ensure he would not forget it it.

 

Jonathan Brostoff, a State Representative from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has let his hair grow for well over a year, and is refusing to cut it until a piece of legislation is passed addressing the ramifications of a shortage of qualified American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters in the state.

Brostoff, who has sported close-cropped hair since university, but who now sports a wild shock of curly hair, says the bill “will create more accountability, accessibility and opportunities to work in the Deaf and interpreting communities”.

The bill, co-authored by Brostoff in 2017, aims to protect and respect the rights of Deaf community members to qualified and experienced interpreters, especially in emergency situations, as well as to provide clarity and consistency in the accreditation and training of interpreters, and enforce harsher financial penalties to those working or advertising interpreting services without a licence.

 

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Pictured: Jonathan Brostoff (sporting his traditional hairstyle), and his wife, Diana Vang-Brostoff

 

Current law in Wisconsin allows newly licensed interpreters, regardless of their experience level, to interpret any situation, including in such sensitive and complex environments as medical procedures, psychiatric appointments and legal court proceedings. At the same time, an erroneous change to the national certification exam (which can award interpreters a permanent license after six years) means that highly skilled and experienced interpreters are suddenly becoming unaccredited.

Brostoff’s bill aims to create more a more relevant and intelligent system for interpreter testing and ranking, including a tier system to ensure interpreters are placed in environments suited to their skill level and to the needs of the Deaf client. This, in turn, will create a safer and more beneficial service to the Deaf and hard of hearing communities, as well as restoring confidence in businesses and government agencies who hire interpreters.

 

“Every day this bill is delayed is a day the Deaf community is being denied the access and accountability they deserve.”

 

Despite initial bipartisan support, the bill still remains unsigned into law. Brostoff says, however, that failure is not an option. “I’ve been growing out my hair as a personal commitment to the Deaf community here in Wisconsin and to myself to get this bill passed.”

The US Deaf and hard of hearing communities have been supportive of Brostoff’s efforts, with Deaf activist, model and actor Nyle DiMarco even weighing in.

 

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Brostoff’s connection to the Deaf community began while at university, where he worked as an intern in Washington for then-Senator Tom Harkin, a leader in Disability Rights (and notable as the first person to debate legislation using sign language in the US Senate). There, he became “really close buddies” with two other interns, Cristina and Andrew, who were both Deaf. His friends introduced him to Deaf culture, helped him learn American Sign Language (ASL) and educated him in the numerous ways the government was failing to ensure the rights of its Deaf constituents.

“I just made friends with two folks who were Deaf,” Brostoff explains. “This led to a lot more Deaf friends. It was the kindness and love that Cristina and Andrew showed me that helped my introduction to the whole community.”

Brostoff returned to his home town of Milwaukee, Wisconson, where he was elected as a state Representative in 2014, and made a concerted effort to connect with and listen to the local Deaf community. In response to their concerns around the availability and quality of interpreters, Brostoff began writing a proposal for the bill that now still sits before the Wisconsin State Assembly.

 

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Pictured: Jonathan Brostoff, Diana Vang-Brostoff and their son, Boaz

 

Brostoff is hopeful the bill will passed into law in the next legislative cycle, which may be as soon as the next few months. “Every day it’s delayed,” he says, “is a day the Deaf community is being denied the access and accountability they deserve.”

When asked what advice he would give to other legislators across the US about representing the Deaf community, Brostoff is unequivocal. “Learn sign language, and work hard. It's a beautiful community, and a community that deserves your attention and respect.”

When the bill passes, Brostoff promises to throw a “shearfest”.

“I want a large community party,” he says, “with those who helped it happen.”

Brostoff says his wife Diana likes his long hair, but is yet to achieve her goal of taming it into a ponytail. The couple recently welcomed a son, Boaz, to their family, whom Brostoff cannot wait to teach ASL. Brostoff says he hopes his son will look back at photos of his dad with long hair and be inspired.

“I hope years down the road he’ll have something to be proud of when this bill passes and he can look back at its history.”

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