Breaking Ground 101 - Tennessee Deaf Mentor Program

By Briella Diaz, Coordinator of the Deaf Mentor Program, Tennessee Schools for the Deaf
A couple of dozen children and adults stand behind and surrounding Governor Bill Lee who sits at a table and signs a bill creating the Deaf Mentor Program at a bill signing ceremony; caption reads: Advocates surround Governor Bill Lee as he signs the Deaf Mentor Pilot Project bill into law in 2019
Advocates surround Governor Bill Lee as he signs the Deaf Mentor Pilot Project bill into law in 2019

Imagine: You are a parent and have just given birth to a Deaf baby. This baby is statistically likely to be the first Deaf person you have ever met.

You are swarmed with dozens of medical professionals telling you how best to raise your child. You are swamped with information overload. 

It can be a lot of pressure to make the best decisions for yourself and your family when you are still unsure what the future will hold for someone who is Deaf.  This is where the Deaf Mentor Program comes in!

This new program was created by Tennessee law in 2019, and is offered through Tennessee Schools for the Deaf. It comes after many years of work by advocates and Deaf organizations.

The program is now in the pilot stage. Its main purpose is to empower parents of Deaf children from the ages of zero to five to make the most informed decisions on how to raise their child and how the family chooses to communicate. It is also a way for hearing parents to meet successful, well-adjusted Deaf adults, and for the Deaf child to have a Deaf role model in their lives from an early age.

The program provides a Parent Advisor, who comes into the home for hourly visits once a week to provide support and healing for the family.  The Parent Advisor is a trained hearing professional who is well-versed on Deafness, both medically and culturally. The Parent Advisor also provides listening and spoken language support for the child and family, when desired.

A Deaf Mentor will also come to the home on a weekly basis to provide perspective and healing for the family.  The Deaf Mentor is a trained Deaf professional who is competent in American Sign Language (ASL) and Deaf culture. When desired, the Deaf Mentor will provide ASL lessons and teach the family how to best raise a Deaf person, based on their own personal experiences of being Deaf. 

The goal of the Deaf Mentor Program is that by the end of the year, families will feel comfortable using both ASL and English in their households. Another goal is that families will feel confident and empowered to advocate and to make decisions that are best for their Deaf child.

Because this program is in the pilot stage, the framework is still being put into place. We are currently working with 13 children from 11 families in the greater Knoxville, Nashville, and Chattanooga areas.

We have hired contract Deaf Mentor employees Sharon Bryant and Sydnee Ackers, and a Deaf Mentor Coordinator, Briella Diaz, to provide services to those families. We also have Tracy Duncan and Alisa Weeks contributing to the program as Parent Advisors. All professionals have been trained under “SKI*HI,” a certified national Deaf Mentor training program that provides a curriculum for the Tennessee Schools for the \\Deaf to use.

It is our goal to expand this program so we can serve more families in the state and provide support to more Deaf children and their respective families. Any further questions about this program can be directed to the Deaf Mentor Program Coordinator, Briella Diaz, at .

Briella Diaz was born deaf to a large deaf family. She was raised in Utah and recently moved to Knoxville, Tennessee. She has a degree in bilingual outreach from Gallaudet University and is passionate about early intervention and ASL. She enjoys listening to music and translating English lyrics into ASL. She looks forward to getting to know Tennessee in the years to come!