The number of deaf refugees in Rochester is small, but the problems they face can be huge without proper support. Deaf Refugee Advocacy of Rochester, a non-profit agency, helps service providers work more effectively with this vulnerable group of people.

DRA serves about 35 deaf refugees at this time, most of whom have come from Bhutan, says, Robert Tawney, the agency’s co-director. All refugees face hardships, but deaf refugees face an additional obstacle because they often don’t have a language, he says. Some developed countries have their own sign language, but underdeveloped countries typically don’t.

“They usually learn to point to things and make gestures,” Tawney says.

Deaf refugees tend to come to the US with their parents or siblings who are also trying to make a difficult transition, Tawney says. Their parents want to help them become independent and live on their own, he says.  “It’s a difficult situation for the whole family,” he says.

Tawney’s group is holding “Reach Out! Supporting Deaf Refugees,” a two-day conference from Friday, June 20 through Saturday, June 22, at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at Rochester Institute of Technology.

The conference will feature keynote speakers Lewis Lummer and Cynthia Plue. Both are deaf educators and they’ll talk about creating a safe haven for deaf refugees and supporting them in their resettlement needs.

The workshops will address a wide range of topics, such as finding the right schools and acquiring life and language skills. More information on the conference is available at