by Beverly James
It didn’t take long for Thai Morris to recognize her calling in life.
The Maine native who moved to Georgia in 1990 encountered a sign language interpreter who taught classes at church. The interpreter invited Thai to attend. And the rest—as is commonly said—is history.
“I fell in love with the Deaf people and the language, so I decided to go to school at Georgia Perimeter College (at the time it was DeKalb College) to become an interpreter,” Morris says. She graduated from GPC’s Sign Language Interpreting Program in 1996.
Morris also met her future husband, Shawn, a native Georgian to whom she has been married for 20 years. (She has two step-children, three grandchildren and a fourth on the way.)
In the early years, Morris worked as an educational interpreter in Fulton County and served as a staff interpreter for a Deaf-owned company. Then, in 2000, she established her own interpreting agency, Morris Interpreting Services Inc. in Newnan.
She also began working as a community-based interpreter, teaching workshops and mentoring student interpreters. Currently she has a specialty Mental Health credential and is a candidate for the legal interpreting exam. Tactile interpreting for Deaf/Blind clients is another avenue she fulfills.
But along the way, she realized she wanted to do more.
“The Deaf community is my passion,” she says. “I knew that I could impact the community by offering quality interpreting services that are not covered by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) at no charge to the Deaf consumer.”
So, in 2005, Morris founded Deaf Equal Access Foundation Inc. (DEAF Inc.). Since then, she and her cadre of sign language interpreters have provided thousands of free hours of service to the Deaf community.
Deaf Inc., which is based in Newnan, is currently overseen by a three-member board that includes Morris as president and treasurer; Susan Lascek, former regional manager of the Helen Keller Center, as vice president; and secretary Donna Flanders, who is a staff Interpreter for the Atlanta Area School for the Deaf and a community- based interpreter in private practice. They not only run DEAF Inc., but often cover events themselves.
“The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed so that Deaf people (and people with disabilities in general) would be assured equal access to services they needed,” Morris explains. “But the ADA does not cover everyday family or personal types of situations, such as weddings, baby showers, birthday parties, anniversaries, church funerals and other events. … I saw a need in the community.”
Now, Deaf people can reach out to the organization online for interpreting services.
Interpreters at DEAF Inc. cover approximately 50 events a year and tackle an additional 30-40 advocacy cases. Advocacy includes contacting a physician’s office or other health-care provider to explain the ADA law and why the Deaf person is requesting interpreting services or perhaps helping a Deaf person file an ADA complaint or lawsuit, Morris says.
“It’s a win-win for everybody. When a Deaf person contacts us, the person never pays for the interpreter. But, we ask the client if he or she is willing to make a donation or work with a student or a new interpreter as a mentor, which gives the Deaf person an opportunity to give back as well,” Morris says. “The work of DEAF Inc., is funded entirely by donations, and those go right back into the organization to provide services for someone else. Morris Interpreting picks up all expenses.”
According to Morris, 30-40 percent of the organization’s cases are for advocacy. “We educate the Deaf person to advocate for themselves, and we hold ADA workshops for schools and the community about how to request interpreting services and how to access resources. We explain to them what their rights are and how to ask for what they need,” she says.
Deaf Inc. also provides training for new interpreting graduates from GPC.
“The organization is a great way for GPC students and recent program graduates to practice their skills or observe a more experienced interpreter at work,” Morris says. “Reciprocity is important in the Deaf community. This is a great way for all of us as interpreters to acknowledge that. At the end of the day, it’s about giving back.”
“I think we all are called to give back to the communities that we serve, and this the perfect outlet for that.”