Leading man: Ph.D. student is an advocate for the hearing-impaired
During his first foray into the real world, young Roger Williams was determined to try acting.
"My overriding goal is to make sure ... deaf people have access to all the services they need."
When he didn't get a part in a play at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he was majoring in social work, he walked across the street and tried out for a play at the National Institute for the Deaf.
He got the part.
Then he got a crash course in sign language.
"I didn't know anything about sign language," Williams, a Ph.D. student in social work at the University of South Carolina says, laughing at the memory. "I learned by immersing myself in the deaf community at the Institute, and I was able to sign in the play."
Addressing neglected needs
Many years now into his career, Williams is a certified sign language interpreter, a licensed social worker, an advocate for the deaf, and the director of the South Carolina Department of Mental Health Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
And the deaf community has found an identity as the Deaf Community, though one that still needs strong supporters like Williams.
"My love was always mental health," he says. "The opportunity to start up a program like the Deaf Services Program was a dream job. Around the world, the needs of the Deaf Community have been so neglected by the system.
"My overriding goal is to make sure that in every state, deaf people have access to all the services they need. Although South Carolina has one of the better programs, it could be better."
A personal commitment
Williams and his wife, Sherry, who teaches at the School for the Deaf in Spartanburg, S.C., are keenly aware of the lack of resources for the deaf. They are parents to six children, four of whom are adopted, and deaf.
"When our two children were nearly grown, we realized we could make a direct impact on the lives of several deaf children," he says. "Some of the challenges for the deaf in South Carolina, as in most states with rural areas, is that there is no sign language interpreter in hospital emergency rooms.
"Sometimes you have deaf people sitting in psychiatric hospitals for 20 or 30 years, and they may or may not know why they are in there if no one can communicate with them."
A national leader, research advocate
Exciting things are happening for the deaf at the national and international levels, Williams says. The National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors has a special working group on deafness, and Williams is a member of that group. He also is one of only two representatives from the United States for the International Initiative for Mental Health Leadership Task Force on Deafness.
But Williams wants to do more. And that's why he's at South Carolina.
"More and more, I was seeing a lack of research in the field of deafness and mental health," he says. "That's why I want to get a Ph.D. and add to that body of research."
About Roger Williams
- Position: Director, South Carolina Department of Mental Health Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing
- Academic: Ph.D. student, College of Social Work
- Member: U.S. representative to International Initiative for Mental Health Leadership Task Force on Deafness; National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors
- Family: Wife, Sherry, teacher at School for the Deaf, Spartanburg, S.C., and six children