MANSFIELD – When she was old enough to drive, Catherine Fitzgerald was worried about what would happen if she was ever pulled over by a police officer. Fitzgerald has profound hearing loss and had heard news stories of what could happen when a deaf person failed to obey police because they couldn’t understand them.
“If they pull you over and if they tell you to put your hands up and you can’t hear then things might escalate,” Fitzgerald said.
Her worry gradually grew to include concern for all deaf people in such circumstances. So she decided to do something about it. She created a class for the Mansfield Police Department to train officers in American Sign Language.
That class has resulted in Fitzgerald being chosen as one of 12 finalists in Oticon Inc.’s Focus on People Awards, a national awards program recognizing adults, students and advocates with hearing loss, as well as hearing care practitioners, who have made inspirational contributions to the hearing impaired community.
Creating the class was a natural progression for Fitzgerald who has long been interested in a career in criminal justice.
“Ever since I was a kid I felt captivated by that field,” she said.
Fitzgerald recently graduated from Southeastern Regional Technical Vocational High School and is majoring in criminal justice at Curry College this fall. She would like to become a forensic scientist specializing in computers.
When she was 16 she asked the Mansfield Police Department if she could do odd jobs for them and was hired to do some clerical work. During her senior year she did an externship with Mansfield police working with Philip Seaward, supervisor of support staff and communications, helping go through old records.
Fitzgerald also asked Lt. Roy Bain she could offer a sign language class to the officers as part of her co-op.
Fitzgerald prepared classes and a booklet of letters and phrases. She then gave five, 20-minute presentations during roll call. She offered tips such as that the majority of deaf and hard of hearing people can read lips if you look at them when you are speaking and speak loudly and clearly.
“I think they loved it,” she said.
Fitzgerald said the best part was when officer Nicole Boldrighini stopped to tell her that her first call of the day, just 30 minutes after one of Fitzgerald’s classes, involved dealing with two deaf people and Boldrighini was able to use what she learned.
The Mansfield Police Department now also has visor cards kept in each patrol car in case an officer encounters a driver who is deaf or hard of hearing, Seaward said. The cards help facilitate communication by stating “I am a deaf driver” and print a list of violations the officer can point out to the driver. The cards are also available to the public and were provided by the state Commission for Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
Since Fitzgerald’s externship last spring, there was also been interest in her class from a police department in Manchester, N.H. She sent them some of the 35-page booklets she created for the course and is open to helping other departments.
“I was kind of shocked,” she said when she first heard of the interest from New Hampshire. “It started as a senior project and reached another state.”
This spring representatives at Oticon Inc., a national manufacturer of hearing device manufacturers, saw a television news report about Fitzgerald’s ASL classes and contacted Bain and asked how they could reach her parents to nominate her for their Focus on People Award. So Bain decided to nominate her himself, Seaward said.
“I was proud to nominate her,” Bain said. “She brought national attention to those who live with hearing loss through her efforts to make her police department more accessible to all.”
“She’s wonderful,” Seaward said.
He said Fitzgerald saw a problem and took on the imitative to change it and make things better.
This month, Fitzgerald was named one of three national student finalists for the award. The winners are chosen based on an online voting system. To learn more about the Oticon Focus on People Awards and to vote for Fitzgerald, visit www.Oticon.com/FOP. Voting ends Sept. 26.
“She is a friendly, likeable, energetic teen with clearly defined goals and would be a great ambassador for any group,” Bain said. “She is a credit to her family and her community. I wish her success following her nomination and hope you all will give her your vote-mainly because I can’t wait to see what she will make of another opportunity, should she win.”
“Each year, we’re amazed by the resilience, determination, and selflessness of the applicants for our Focus on People Awards program,” said Nancy Palmere, director of consumer marketing and public relations for Oticon Inc. “These finalists especially stand out as trailblazers in the hearing loss and professional hearing care communities. Each one is tearing down walls and proving that a condition like hearing loss does not inhibit their ability to make a difference.”
“She showed many of us here at MPD that one person can make a difference,” Bain said. “All one needs is a platform and desire to effect change. I’m very proud of her ability to bring the idea of teaching sign language to her local police department and turn that into a message of inclusiveness that has been heard across the country via national news outlets.
“Our mission at MPD is to meet people where they are and provide them with services they need. Catherine has taught us at MPD how to meet the hearing impaired where they are and now we can communicate with those people in a language with which they are comfortable.”
Winners will be announced in November. First place winners in each category receive a donation to the charity of their choice, and winners in the student, adult and advocacy categories receive a pair of Oticon BrainHearing hearing aids. All finalists receive a cash prize.
If chosen the winner, Fitzgerald will also receive $1,000 for the charity of her choice. She said plans to donate the money to Mass Vest a Dog. It’s a cause she’s raised money for in the past and an organization which is helping fund the Mansfield Police Department’s new K9 program expected to start later this year.
To learn more about the Oticon Focus on People Awards and to vote for Fitzgerald, visit www.Oticon.com/FOP.