GREENSBORO — American sign language was Tabitha Allen-Draft’s first language. Both her parents and her sister were deaf. Growing up, she often served as a “bridge of communication” for her family.
“I was the family interpreter,” she said. “But, I loved it, and I felt very blessed to be a voice for them. It became my passion.”
Allen-Draft is still looking to forge a link, and has turned that passion toward running an advocacy organization.
CODA Connections provides interpreting services, as well as financial, housing and job assistance for those in the deaf community. The nonprofit has also sought to raise awareness about the challenges faced by the deaf community during the pandemic.
“Even prior to the pandemic, communication was a barrier,” Allen-Draft said. “But it’s even more so now because of the face masks. Facial expressions are an essential part of American Sign Language. And a lot of people have lost jobs, have had hours cut. And it’s already hard for a deaf person to get a job. So we help with resumes, with job searches.”
Allen-Draft founded CODA, which stands for Child of Deaf Adults, about a year ago, funding it through private donations and grants. She also runs an interpreting service, Hands that Speak, in Greensboro.
Growing up, she said her parents always communicated with her via signs, and that she didn’t speak until she was about 4.
“Later on, I had to go to speech therapy, because all I knew was sign,” she said. “It was an all deaf household.”
From early on, she found herself teaching other people basic signs, something she still does quite often when she’s out and about.
“We can go to a grocery store, get into a conversation with a cashier, and they’ll say, ‘How do I say this,’” she said. “And we teach them two or three signs. We try to do educating wherever we go. We want the hearing world to know that there are ways to interact with a deaf person, make them feel welcome.”
CODA has offered programs for both children and adults with deaf family members to learn sign language, and has conducted workshops for companies wanting their employees to learn some signs.
Recently, Allen-Draft has also been trying to promote the use of clear masks, though they’re not always readily available.
“Just seeing half of a face, messages can be misconstrued,” she said. “A deaf person is relying on those facial cues. A lot of people rely on reading lips also, as well as signs, so this is another setback causing anxiety.”
Allen-Draft estimates that CODA has worked with about 60 families throughout the Triad during the past year, offering assistance ranging from gas cards to helping secure apartment leases. Over the holidays, Allen-Draft also delivered gift bags to families.
One of the people the organization has assisted is Christina Langdon-Larson, a GTCC student who is deaf and has three children, one of whom is also deaf. She is hoping to become a certified medical assistant.
Allen-Draft helped her find her current apartment near North Church Street, and on a Friday afternoon right before Christmas, she delivered several bags of gifts for her children.
“I almost got kicked out of another apartment, I was pregnant, didn’t know what to do, and one of my deaf friends told me to contact her (Allen-Draft),” Langdon-Larson said in sign language with Allen-Draft interpreting. “It’s been a struggle, but I feel like I have some good support. Without it, we wouldn’t have this place.”
CODA had helped her get into a temporary shelter before she moved into the apartment, and will be providing furniture for the new place, Allen-Draft said.
During the pandemic, Allen-Draft has also been trying to check in virtually with families. Before the spread of COVID-19, CODA regularly hosted group sessions, which is something she hopes to resume soon.
“The deaf community has taken a hit also in socializing,” Allen-Draft said. “We’ve seen a rise in mental health challenges as well. So we want to be able to do group engagements, do workshops on identity. Peer-to-peer is a big deal, being around other people where they can sign.”
Contact Robert C. Lopez at firstname.lastname@example.org