It took Josh Lafazan less than a month to pass his first bill as the Nassau County legislator representing District 18. The measure, submitted for consideration March 26, requires an American Sign Language interpreter at all emergency county news conferences.
The bill passed the Legislature 19-0 on April 23, and County Executive Laura Curran signed it into law two days later.
“Today reminded me of why I ran for office as a teenager –– to use my voice to lift up the voices of others and to listen to the needs of my constituents,” Lafazan, of Syosset, said.
Lafazan was elected to the Syosset Board of Education at age 18. He won election to the Legislature last November. The now 24-year-old said he was inspired to write the ASL interpreter bill by a constituent.
Lafazan met Christine Oddo, of Bayville, and her three dogs, Beau Bear, Caroline and Cody, while campaigning. Oddo said she was surprised by the legislator’s bravery when he entered her yard with a trio of barking dogs.
When Lafazan asked what he could do to secure Oddo’s vote, she had two requests: create a dog park in Bayville and, more important, require an ASL interpreter at all emergency news conferences.
Oddo is the director of corporate compliance and community outreach at the Mill Neck School for the Deaf. “For years I’ve been concerned about our individuals, many of whom are developmentally disabled, during emergency situations,” she said.
Oddo explained that for the deaf and hard of hearing, closed captions are often flawed. “They don’t represent exactly what is being spoken, and it’s difficult for a deaf person to capture the essence of what’s being said in an emergency situation and try to decipher what is meant by that communication.”
Shortly after Lafazan was sworn in in January, he met with Oddo to develop the bill. Along with Oddo and attorneys, the legislator solicited input from his former Cornell University professor, Thomas Golden, executive director of the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability, to help craft the legislation.
“I took his class during my senior year, and learning about the disability community’s fight for equality lit a fire in me,” Lafazan said. “I promised him then that if I ever achieved higher office, I’d be a champion for people with disabilities.”
Throughout the legislative process, members of the Mill School’s Day Habilitation program accompanied Lafazan at the news conferences and hearings to promote the bill. An interpreter signed beside him as he spoke.
“The atmosphere was one of excitement,” Oddo said. “Some of our members had never been in that environment before, but they all felt tremendous pride being a part of the process, and being included, and that’s what this is all about.”
Day Habilitation member Lisa Grant Woodley, of Rockville Centre, signed before the Legislature during the bill’s public hearing period. “There are about 31,792 deaf people in [Nassau County] that need real, professional interpreters,” she signed. “We need interpreters for people who are deaf and hard of hearing to make sure that we are all supported and equal. I want to be equal.”
Achieving bipartisan support for the bill was another point of pride for Lafazan, who caucuses with the Democrats but is unaffiliated with a political party. “The legislation yielded itself to bipartisan support,” Lafazan said. “But in a building of polarization, I’m able to get things done because I work to humanize the place. I treat everyone the same whether there’s an R or D next to their name.”
Now Lafazan is teaming up with Steve Stern, who was elected to represent Huntington’s 10th Assembly District in Suffolk County, to create statewide legislation. Lafazan said the two have been in talks to replicate the bill in Albany, so deaf and hard-of-hearing people across New York can stay informed in emergencies.