When students in the University of Texas-Pan American’s rehabilitation program, concentration in services to individuals who are Deaf and hard of hearing, enrolled in clinical studies in the spring of 2009, little did they know what was in store for them.

It started when Dr. Shawn Saladin, coordinator of the concentration designed to train students to work with Deaf and hard of hearing members of their community, met Sonia Quintero, deafness resource specialist for Communication Axess Ability Group (CAAG), funded by the Office for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services of the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (DARS). Quintero educates Deaf and hard of hearing people in the Valley about resources available to them. Somehow Saladin and Quintero knew they didn’t meet by chance. Students in Saladin’s program soon would learn how important that meeting would become.

Saladin’s students conducted research on various topics that affect the Deaf and hard of hearing in our community. They created presentations to share what they learned with their classmates. Saladin decided to invite Quintero to sit in on the presentations. Quintero already had accepted Saladin’s students as interns in her office, and Saladin wanted her to see his Clinical Topics students’ work. As she watched and listened to the students’ presentations, Quintero knew she had found the solution to a real-life problem.

“On a regular basis, I find people who are without support,” Quintero said. “I don’t have the time to meet all of those needs.” Estimates indicate 8,000 Deaf people make their home in the Rio Grande Valley. While specific data is not available, the number of hard of hearing individuals is even greater. A simple question formed in Quintero’s mind. “What if?”

She approached Saladin with the idea of having his students work to improve the lives of Deaf and hard of hearing people in the Rio Grande Valley. Saladin jumped at the chance, and they scheduled a meeting with the students at Quintero’s office. The students, because of their research, had already formed a picture of the needs. Quintero added issues that had come up through her work.

Students formed teams: transition, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Texas Early Detection Hearing and Intervention (TEDHI) Protocol, restaurants, low-functioning deaf, addiction issues and law enforcement. They established plans and set to work to make a difference in the community. They felt they needed a name, so they established Valley-ICAN, an acronym for Valley Independent Confident Activities Network.

Before their work began, Saladin, along with his wife, Dr. Sandra Hansmann, hard of hearing specialist with the university’s department of rehabilitation, developed a pedagogy to ensure students would meet established academic goals. At the end, they had a framework for a service learning project unlike any other.

One of the founding members of Valley-ICAN is Sara Block, a recent graduate of Saladin’s program. “In clinical topics, we did a lot of research,” she said. “Valley-ICAN allowed us to take the problems and actually do something instead of just talking about them. We put action to our words. We’re young, but through this, we learned about professionalism. We learned how to behave in meetings and developed leadership skills. We had everything planned out before we began.”

“The students also learned how to maintain confidentiality,” Saladin said. “They completed a confidentiality agreement.” Confidentiality is a critical skill in virtually all areas of employment Saladin’s graduates seek.

The transition group worked with Deaf high school students to teach them about career opportunities and education requirements for various jobs.

Another group went to healthcare facilities throughout the Valley to teach them about the ADA. This federal law clearly states that these facilities must provide qualified interpreters for Deaf patients. The group came up with the idea of an ID card Deaf people can carry with them to identify themselves. The card also outlines the basics of ADA.

TEDHI, pronounced “Teddy,” is the hearing test hospitals conduct on newborns, resulting in early detection of hearing loss. This group provided outreach to families whose infants failed the test.

The restaurant group talked with the management at local eateries about Deaf culture and how to avoid communication pitfalls. They also taught them basic signs, encouraging them to establish a relationship with their Deaf patrons.

One group of students worked one-on-one with Deaf and hard of hearing individuals to teach them sign language, how to read and other important skills that will allow them to become more self-sufficient. This group sprang from Quintero’s day-to-day contact with the community.

“I often have parents come to my office with their Deaf child who is now an adult,” said Quintero. “These are Deaf people who have never been to school in their lives and who cannot communicate with the public. Their parents are concerned and ask me, ‘What will happen to my child when something happens to me?’ I saw this as a perfect opportunity for Valley-ICAN students.”

The addiction group came up with the idea of creating videos about addiction in ASL and posting them on YouTube and similar sites.

The law enforcement group visited various agencies and police departments to inform them of the rights of Deaf and hard of hearing individuals under ADA.

Valley-ICAN students developed monthly reports and presented them to the group’s board. This allowed board members to offer advice to the students as they discussed issues they faced in carrying out their plans.

“There are so many gaps,” Quintero said. “Each individual in Valley-ICAN is now an ambassador of Deaf needs. We gave them the tools, and they have taken the action.”

By the end of the semester, Saladin’s 24 students completed 700 volunteer hours.

“It turned out to be a lot of fun,” said Block. “We didn’t feel forced. A lot of us have full-time jobs and some have families, but even after we completed our practicum hours, we continued volunteering our time to this project.”

Saladin echoed Block. “It has been hugely popular,” he said. “The students love it.”

Because of its success, other universities with a rehabilitation program, like Stephen F. Austin, want to replicate it. It appears likely that Valley I-CAN is only the beginning of I-CAN projects.

“It was the perfect match,” said Quintero. “Without Dr. Saladin and his students, I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish all of this in the Valley.”

It started with what some may call a chance meeting. Now more Deaf and hard of hearing individuals in our community CAN.