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Café con Tanya welcomes Spanish-speaking parents of children with special needs

Columbian - 2/7/2019

Feb. 07--Having a child diagnosed with a developmental disability such as autism or Down syndrome can be scary for any parent. But if you primarily speak a language other than English, that creates a whole new set of challenges.

"A lot of things get lost in translation, and that's a big obstacle," said Tanya English, who's been the part-time Hispanic outreach coordinator at Vancouver-based PEACE, or Parents Empowered and Communities Enhanced, since October. The outreach program was started by Maria Rangel, who now does bilingual outreach for the Northwest Down Syndrome Association in Portland.

English provides one-on-one support to Spanish-speaking families who are trying to navigate Individual Education Programs and the Developmental Disabilities and Social Security administrations. It's common for PEACE to hire interpreters for their larger group trainings, said Executive Director Darla Helt; Spanish is the most requested language.

English recently began offering a more intimate education and support group for Spanish speakers, where they can talk about whatever is on their minds. English, who also works as a paraeducator at a blended preschool, heard coordinators around the state were hosting coffee gatherings.

"Culturally, when you come in and you invite someone to your home, you offer them something. You offer them coffee, you offer them bread, you offer them whatever that you have," she said.

Coffee with Tanya, or Café con Tanya, began in December and meets the first and third Wednesday of every month. There's coffee to sip and cookies to eat as families chat. The goal is to provide a warm and welcoming space.

"We're just here to help them with what they need," English said.

English invites experts -- both those who speak Spanish and those who don't. On Wednesday, David Pitonyak, a consultant with Virginia-based Imagine, spoke through an interpreter to the small group of families who gathered in a meeting room at Innovative Services NW in Vancouver. Families are welcome to bring their children; the little ones occupied their time Wednesday drawing on a white board and playing with fidget spinners.

Karina Vazquez explained through an interpreter that her 4-year-old daughter, Tita, has fragile X syndrome and autism. She said Tita is sometimes shy and doesn't know how to react to things, and has anxiety around going to the restroom.

"People who are on the spectrum often have a lot of anxiety in their bodies. It's not unusual," said Pitonyak, who specializes in behavioral issues.

Over the course of his conversation with Vazquez and the other moms, Pitonyak provided advice for fostering a calm environment that helps children feel more comfortable. He advocated for establishing a routine because children benefit from knowing an activity has a beginning, middle and end.

Vazquez had several pointed questions for Pitonyak as she relayed her challenges with Tita. She said she heard about Café con Tanya through a flyer at her daughter's school.

"We learn from all our families -- their testimonies, what they're going through -- and learn we're not the only ones going through it," she said through interpreter Gabriela Ewing.

Ewing, who works for Crescent Moon Interpretation Services, said when she is interpreting in this setting, she has to condense what experts say and understand the lingo around special needs. She has to explain terms that don't have a Spanish equivalent.

"Not just anybody can do this type of interpretation," Ewing said. "It's a huge need in the community."

It can get tricky. Ewing has a son with autism and runs her own support group for Spanish-speaking parents that meets at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Brush Prairie. In her experience as a parent to a child with special needs, she's noticed people interpreting incorrectly. She said it's important that the interpreter is impartial, and not attempting to favor the organization they're interpreting for, whether it's a school or provider.

"The language around developmental disabilities is fairly specific, as it is for any sub-group of anything," Helt said. "If an interpreter is not skilled in special education, they may not have the language to interpret what that means."

Two bills introduced in the Legislature earlier this month address language access in public schools. One of the provisions of House Bill 1130 requires the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to "document the language in which families of special education students prefer to communicate and whether a qualified interpreter for the family was provided at certain meetings," according to the bill digest.

English said there can be fear around reaching out and asking for help, whether due to citizenship status or a cultural barrier. Also, there's fear around the fact that a family's future for their child looks different than first envisioned.

"It's challenging culturally to assimilate the fact that you've got a different road," English said.

Through Café con Tanya, families try to navigate that road together.


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