Deaf Action Center: A Voice for the Voiceless

Published on June 10, 2016

Hurricane season is here, which means you may soon see Catholic Charities’ Shari Bernius (pictured above) on your television. Bernius, the Administrator at Catholic Charities’ Deaf Action Center, is known to many for providing sign language interpretation services for press conferences during times of emergency and disaster. Leading up to and during hurricane season, Bernius and Jennifer Guerrieri, who serves as the Interpretation Coordinator at the Deaf Action Center, participate in mock evacuations and educate staff on the needs of the deaf community in case they encounter a deaf individual during an actual evacuation or emergency situation.

However, hurricane season only represents a portion of the work done by Bernius and Guerrieri at the Deaf Action Center, which serves the Greater New Orleans Area and Jefferson, St. Bernard, St. Tammany, St. John, Plaquemines and Houma-Thibodaux parishes.

The Deaf Action Center connects people who are deaf, deaf-blind, hard-of-hearing and/or speech disabled with the larger community through various services, which include professional and certified sign language interpreters, information and referrals, client support and emergency interpreting services. In addition, interpreters help the deaf become increasingly independent by bridging the gap between the deaf and hearing and being a voice for the voiceless.

ShariDue to a nationwide shortage of interpreters, the services offered by Bernius and Guerrieri, who are both nationally certified and fluent interpreters, are more important than ever. The two are the Deaf Action Center’s only full-time employees, and they spend most of their days out in the field interpreting for whomever may need their services. The Center schedules interpreters daily to ensure that each deaf individual is matched with an interpreter who best fits their needs. Because emergencies can arise at any time, Bernius and Guerrieri are on call 24/7.

While working in the field, interpreters also try to advocate for their deaf clients and educate those around them on the rights and privileges afforded to the deaf. For example, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, service providers are required to provide interpreters for those who need them.

Although strides have been made in the 35 years Bernius has been working with the deaf, she says there’s still a long way to go in terms of equal access and discrimination. The biggest problem is simply a misconception of what the deaf really need. While most people assume deaf individuals can read lips, lip reading is in reality only about 30% effective. Writing back and forth is also rather ineffective as American Sign Language, which is the language many deaf individuals use to communicate, is not simply a translation of English, but a language all its own.

Bernius, whose parents are both deaf, said she feels somewhat overprotective of the deaf community as a whole because she grew up so immersed in it. She commented, “The Deaf Action Center is and always will be important to the deaf community since discrimination is still a daily issue.”

Recently, Bernius was able to use her interpretation skills in a fun, new way. She taught sign language to the cast and crew of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes! She’s also been asked to use her skills on the set of another upcoming movie, but couldn’t share the film’s name just yet.

As New Orleans buckles down for another hurricane season, Bernius and Guerrieri will be keeping close eyes on the weather and making sure parishes are prepared to accommodate their residents’ needs, including the deaf, in case of an emergency. You can visit our YouTube page to view Bernius’ sign language videos detailing what to do before, during and after weather-related emergencies.