The deaf will be heard. People with the `invisible disability' fight for rights and cultural identity

GALLAUDET University is quiet now. Just a handful of summer school students stroll in the sun-drenched quad where four months ago, thousands of bundled-up students held banners and placards. And stayed put until they got what they wanted. The protest lasted a week here at the world's only liberal arts university for deaf students. And when it was over, for the first time in its 124-year history the school had a deaf president and more deaf representation on the board of trustees. The students' success was a victory for the faculty and much of the deaf community as well.

``It was time,'' says Jack Gannon, executive director of alumni relations at Gallaudet. ``Deaf people kept getting the same responses over and over, `You're not ready.'''

Perhaps the most dramatic civil rights protest in recent years, it was the culmination of years of effort by deaf people to establish their place in the sun: to have the right to work, to represent themselves in matters that pertain to their lives, to use their own language, and to have access to the hearing world.

``Now we're saying we'll manage things, not just have access,'' says the new, deaf president of Gallaudet, I. King Jordan, sitting in his plush blue office overlooking the campus. ``Deaf people I've spoken with say the advance of that week will provide us with more equal opportunity than we've ever had. We've moved from entitlement to empowerment.''

It has been a long struggle. Gary Olsen, president of the National Association of the Deaf, says through an interpreter from his office in Indianapolis that the fight probably goes back to 1948, when Congress passed a law prohibiting discrimination against deaf people in the federal government.

``That opened up jobs in the post office, but it showed little accomplishment. In the 1960s, we learned in South Carolina that a blind superintendent was chosen to run a deaf school,'' says Mr. Olsen. ``Then we'd had it. People hit the streets demanding change and got it. Those kinds of things have enhanced the feeling that deaf people can get the necessary attention they deserve in fighting for their lives.''

Distinctive culture

Much of the deaf community considers itself a separate culture, rather than a disability group. ``We are a minority group with our culture, own language, mores, community, and social organizations,'' Dr. Jordan says. ``There are deaf clubs in every major city in the US. The American Athletic Association of the Deaf has tens of thousands of members, and there's a Deaf Olympics.''

It's a culture many are proud of. That wasn't always the case, Mr. Gannon says. ``When I was growing up, there was lots of negativism surrounding deafness. When I would use sign language with my friends, we would attract crowds. It gave deaf people the feeling that what they were doing was wrong. In the past two or three decades that's changed. Today, deaf people are proud of their culture, the language, the history.''

Language is the key to what deaf-ness is all about. ``The single most important event in deaf liberation,'' says Harlan Lane, professor of psychology at Northeastern University, was when a professor at Gallaudet, Dr. William C. Stokoe Jr., in doing linguistics research, discovered that sign language had the properties all languages share: grammar, vocabulary, dialects, and registers. Previously it had been thought to be merely a collection of signs - useless or an impediment as a language.

``The deaf have always taken the position that their own minority language is essential to their identity and the only way to educate deaf children,'' says Dr. Lane, author of ``When the Mind Hears,'' a history of deaf people. Public recognition of the legitimacy of their language was heartening to deaf people, he says.

Having schools use American Sign Language with deaf children, however, continues to be a struggle. The 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act was considered a boon to many disabled groups, because it integrated disabled children into regular schools. Not so for many parents who want their deaf children in schools where signing will be the primary form of communication, says Lane. In regular schools, they're communicatively locked out.

``The kids don't understand, the teacher doesn't understand them, and deaf kids get out as soon as they can, because it's been a disaster. Most drop out at 16 with the average reading ability of a hearing child of 8,'' he says.

``[This system] forces kids to fail in public school first before they can be admitted to a residential [deaf] school,'' says Olsen. ``It's holding back many of our children.''

``It's not that deaf people are seeking isolation, but an environment in which there is free and easy communication,'' says Jordan. ``If you could show me a mainstream school where all kids and teachers are signing, I'd leap.''

Twenty-one million Americans have some type of hearing impairment. Deafness is called the invisible disability, because the limitations are less obvious. ``[But] the barrier becomes every bit as real as lack of curb cuts or elevator,'' says Jordan. ``Those are very easy to see, but communication accessibility is much more difficult to achieve.''

But with certain environmental adaptations, deaf people can participate in a hearing society. Television programs can be captioned; telephones can be equipped with devices called TDDs that transmit typed rather than spoken words; sound-activated visual alarms can alert deaf people. And interpreters are increasingly available. The challenge is making them a normal part of everyday experience.

Identical bills now in the United States House and Senate aim to ensure that Americans who are hearing-impaired have the same access within and without government that hearing people do. The bills would mandate that all government offices (not every desk, sponsors say) have a TDD. They would also pressure the Federal Communications Commission to establish a nationwide relay system, where an operator with a TDD acts as go-between in a conversation between hearing and deaf persons.

``A hearing person,'' explains an aide to Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a sponsor of the Senate bill, ``can call any government office they want, and government employees can function correctly, but hearing-impaired people must have a third person listening in, they have to wait till a relay operator is available, and they can't work to their full potential as government employees.''

Another piece of legislation, the Americans With Disabilities Act, would make TDD systems more widespread and all telephones hearing-aid compatible, according to Jordan.

Breaking down the barriers that keep deaf people out of the hearing world is not cheap. But these are costs that many deaf people say society should willingly support.

``It's expensive to be deaf,'' says Jordan. ``For me to wake up, I need a special alarm, a device that vibrates the bed. A decoder [to access closed-caption television programs] costs $200. A TDD costs $200, then phoning becomes three to four times as long [because both parties type their conversations]. I think I should not pay substantially more to use the phone than someone who hears. It's a dime a month. I think it's fair to ask hearing customers to pay a dime.''

When she needs an interpreter, Debra Earnest, a program analyst at Digital Equipment Corporation in Hudson, Mass., calls the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing. The commission pays $20 to $30 an hour for interpreters but won't pay for everything, and usually requires two-week notice.

Ms. Earnest, sitting at the round oak table of Nancy Davis, her friend and interpreter, is confident and outspoken. She attributes her confidence to her encouraging hearing family and to the deaf high school she attended. ``I learned about leadership there. You can't run for president in a hearing school, but in a deaf school everyone can run.''

One way the barrier between the deaf and hearing worlds has been broken is through the arts. The Theater of the Deaf has been performing all over the world since 1967. The award-winning play and film ``Children of a Lesser God'' and the TV show ``Love Is Never Silent'' opened up deaf culture to the hearing population and broke stereotypes. Although the star of ``Children,'' Marlee Matlin, was criticized by some deaf people for speaking rather than just signing when she accepted the Academy Award for ``Children,'' winning the award was seen as a victory.

``Signing really came out of the closet when Theater of the Deaf started,'' says Phyllis Frelich, a former actress with the company, who later went on to play the lead in the stage version of ``Children of a Lesser God.''

One cable show, Deaf Mosaic, that runs on 100 stations, is open-captioned, signed, and voiced. It presents interviews, conferences, portraits of historical deaf figures. It even offers an exercise video that one hearing participant says ``is great, because I can do it with a deaf friend.''

Previous articles in this series appeared on April 25 (blind), July 8 (civil rights movement), July 11 (families), July 15 (independent living), July 22 (transportation), and July 26 (technology).

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