When Mary Lou Conte speaks, people listen -- and watch. The young woman with a bachelor's degree from Gallaudet College and a master's degree from New York University speaks English fluently but communicates best through American Sign Language. A counselor and ASL teacher, she is also involved with public relations and job curriculum development for New York Interpreters for the Deaf Inc.
Although deaf from birth, she didn't learn American Sign Language until high school.
"I was raised in the hearing world and only had contact with oral deaf children. I had never seen any deaf person who communicated with the language of sign. I had intensive speech therapy and reading therapy and developed very good speech skills, but it was not easy. I was very lonely. Others didn't relate to me as easily."
Her hands gesture quickly, forming the signs that the interpreter translates with only brief hesitations when searching for the precise English phrases to convey what is being said.
"I had a very supportive family, but my parents, who were counseled by the experts in the 1950s, were told not to let me be exposed to sign language at all. That was the philosophy then. I feel that if I had learned signed English [a modification of American Sign Language using English syntax] as well as oral skills, I would have been better off.
"Many words I could not see on the lips when I was a child; and I could not comprehend them, I didn't understand the meanings. It took me a long while to acquire . . . reading skills and understand the dynamics of my environment, of what happens."
When a friend introduced her to sign, Miss Conte was amazed at how easily the girl communicated with deaf friends and wanted to learn how, too. She says that whe she later entered Gallaudet College and gained a full comprehension of ASL, her vocabulary shot up, and her understanding of the world and how people relate expanded greatly.
There are about 2,000 signs in ASL, says Cathy Cogen, coordinator of the sign-language program at Northeastern University. But she adds that one can't limit the language to that number of words, because new vocabulary is constantly being built.
She says there is still controversy over whether or not ASL should be taught as a language.
"A lot of people still think that if you let a child use his or her hands he or she will never learn how to talk, lip-read, or use English. Research has shown that not only does sign language not hinder development of skills, it enhances development of those skills, because you know that things have names, that this is a table, that this is a book. Then later you can put in the second language [English] much more easily."
For Mary Lou Conte, remembering the loneliness and difficulty of relating to others before she knew ASL, there is no question about its value. She says the deaf are already isolated enough because of high prices for equipment to help them (teletype machines, doorbell alarms, lights, etc.) and by job discrimination. Even she faces not-so-subtle changes in attitudes when people learn of her handicap.
"Often I'm confronted in situations where people may discover I am deaf and they become really condescending," she says. "They can't imagine I would have a degree unless I tell them. Then they treat me on an equal level."
She says deaf people don't need to be more isolated.
"I have two major philosophies. . . . One is that handicapped people of any kind to achieve a place in this world must have a very supportive family from the very beginning. The other is that, no matter what it takes, whatever a deaf person needs to make it in the hearing world and the deaf world -- to make it anywhere -- be it ASL, signed English, verbal skills, mime, w hatever: Let them have it."