Determined to make a difference

Often, through adversity, we find deeper understanding. And for those, who are particularly lucky — from life’s hardships, we find purpose. Certainly, for Dave Bitters, those words seem true.

At three years old, Dave lost much of his hearing after developing a high fever from the measles. In first grade, he got his very first — of what would be many — hearing aids. And throughout his entire K-12 education, he was mainstreamed in the Pittsburgh public school system. Only in college did he go to a school for people with hearing loss — the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, New York. By 45, Dave was profoundly deaf. But today, thanks to bilateral cochlear implants, he hears well and draws from his own life experiences to help others in his community.

Determined to make a difference, Dave made some very deliberate choices about how he was going to use his experience with hearing loss. Shortly after moving to South Carolina in his retirement, Dave was eyewitness to the October 2015 historic flooding in the Columbia area — which took the lives of 19 people statewide and forced hundreds to flee their homes. He also was a South Carolina resident at the time of the tragic shooting of a deaf motorist in North Carolina by a police officer the following year.

“I realized the obstacles faced by people with hearing loss in emergency situations — and the urgent need for better communication between these individuals and police and firefighters,” Dave explained. “Despite the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the rights of people with hearing loss are often violated.”

In response to those events, Dave jumped in and went to work. He reached out to local fire and police departments and offered to serve as a consultant and trainer. He now teaches fundamental — and potentially lifesaving — communication skills on how to recognize that a person is deaf or has hearing loss, and on the best ways to approach them. He makes clear that communicating with someone who is deaf is very different from using standard English grammar. And he discusses how and when to use a sign language interpreter. Importantly, he teaches American Sign Language to firefighters and police officers who want to put in the extra time. “My goal is to provide the additional training that will help first responders on the job,” he said. 

I see the world as one community, and my hope is that we all will work together. Ultimately, this requires greater awareness and sensitivity to the needs of people with hearing loss.

Dave hopes to eventually extend this training to the entire state of South Carolina. He also has made a training video — required by the Department of Justice for every employee in the South Carolina state prison system to view — and has advised the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy on some of their training.

In addition, Dave came up with a car visor communication card to meet the needs of South Carolina’s first responders and residents with hearing loss. These cards enable people with hearing loss to point to a picture of what’s wrong in an emergency. Likewise, it allows law enforcement officers to point to pictures to indicate why they pulled someone over. Today, these cards, which are endorsed by South Carolina Public Safety, are available to help those with hearing loss communicate with police officers.

Dave went even further and created a similar communications aid — an icon board — for fire and EMS trucks — and provided it to the fire department in Irmo, South Carolina, and to the Lexington County EMS. The State Fire Marshall has since added the communication icon board to its website so that other fire departments within South Carolina can download it. What’s more, Dave initiated a program with Fire Safe South Carolina to provide free bedside alarm clocks that detect smoke alarms.

On the State Legislature front, Dave worked with local Lawmakers to pass a bill that requires the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles to indicate on vehicle registration records that a person has a hearing loss. This voluntary notation, Dave explained, better prepares police officers when approaching a vehicle. South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster signed the bill into law on March 19, 2020.

In April 2016, Dave founded the HLAA Midlands Chapter — the first in the state — and currently serves as its president.

“With the support of HLAA, and its vast network of people and information, I’ve been able to support those with a hearing loss in my own community, where our motto is ‘It’s OK to not be able to hear well,” Dave said. “Surviving a hearing loss and now being able to help others on that journey — I believe these are among my greatest accomplishments. I want to help ensure that everyone with hearing loss continues to have a voice.”