The Independence Center's CNA training program is now housed next door to its main location.
Back in January, the Independence Center, a nonprofit serving people with disabilities, received a request from a Denver resident who is deaf.
She'd signed up for a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) class in Denver that wasn't able to provide her with an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter.
"She was very determined and very motivated to become a CNA," recalls Rebecca Hull, CNA training program administrator at the Independence Center. "However, when she actually got into the classwork, she realized that she really needed an equal access to language — and it was just not possible to complete the class for her without an ASL interpreter. So she came to us, and asked us if we would be willing to set up such a class."
This summer, the Independence Center is doing just that, by providing an ASL interpreter at CNA classes that run June 3 to June 27. The training program includes seven deaf students and five hearing students, Hull says. Most of the students are from Colorado, though the Independence Center has received calls from out of state expressing interest.
One student who hails from Maryland hopes to take the skills he learns back to his home country of Sri Lanka, where he'll teach other deaf individuals how to become caretakers.
While it's been difficult for people who are deaf or hard of hearing to break into the medical field, Hull says, their disability can actually prove to be an advantage in certain situations.
"The deaf and hard of hearing population is so reliant on their power of observation, because that is how we get all of our information — by paying attention to the little details that a hearing person might overlook because all of their senses are being overwhelmed," Hull says.
"And being so in tune to details, I feel like it gives the deaf community a gain and advantage to realize 'Oh hey, you seem to be favoring your left side today, and last week you were favoring your right side. Is there something going on?' Just being able to tune into tiny details really can make all the difference in your resident's care plan."
The Independence Center offers CNA training programs once a month, with day and evening hours available. Students who graduate from the program work in hospitals, nursing homes, hospice, rehab programs and home health care, or may choose to go on to nursing school.
The nonprofit has trained more than 800 students since it purchased the program in December 2015, after encountering difficulty filling CNA positions in its own home health program.
"We were having so much trouble finding CNAs, attracting that workforce, that we decided: We're going to train them," Independence Center CEO Patricia Yeager told the Indy in October, after the CNA program's new building
The job growth for CNAs is faster than average, with an 11 percent increase in job openings expected between 2016 and 2026, according to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics. That growth is driven in part by the fast-increasing population of people older than 65 (in Colorado, that age group is expected to double to 1.7 million by 2050).
The average annual wage for CNAs working in Colorado was $32,600, or $15.70 an hour, in May of last year.
Hull says that if the Denver and Colorado Springs communities express interest, they'll continue to offer training with an ASL interpreter.
"I'm just a big believer in 'Deaf Can,' and I think that a lot of the students in our class are going to go on to make great CNAs," Hull says. "I'm just really excited for them and excited to be a part of all of this."
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect appropriate language when discussing deaf individuals.