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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   November 2009


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Signs of Progress

The Las Cruces Association of the Deaf works to educate both the deaf and hearing communities.

By Jeff Berg



A few weeks ago, I was a guest at a meeting of the Las Cruces Association of the Deaf (LCAD). The mission of the LCAD includes assisting people who are deaf and hard of hearing ("DHH") in any way possible, from social events (of which there are many for the DHH community), to education, to outreach. One project currently underway is designed to help reach the DHH via text messages in case of a community emergency, such as a storm or fire.

Body Mind Spirit
LCAD members march for Deaf Awareness.

There were probably a dozen or so people at the meeting. Besides myself, three others could hear, two of whom have deaf spouses and another who is a teacher for Las Cruces Public Schools (LCPS).

Several weeks prior, I had asked Sandra Williams, who is the Las Cruces coordinator for the state of New Mexico's Commission for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons, if she or someone else could act as an interpreter for me for the meeting. Many years ago, I had been slightly fluent at American Sign Language (ASL), the recognized language for the DHH community, but I am very out of practice, and can only remember the alphabet and a few simple words.

Williams graciously arranged for the group to hire an interpreter for the meeting, which helped considerably. Several of the crowd, who noted my feeble attempts at finger spelling, chose not to use the interpreter when speaking with me, but instead called on me to rack my memory, even if I had to finger-spell everything. They didn't mind, perhaps in part because it helped bring me into their culture, which is an amazing and beautiful one indeed.

I met the club president, Ricky Weeaks, a deaf business owner from Roswell. Weeaks told me that there are about 25 active members in the club. Williams added that the DHH community in the Las Cruces area is actually much larger, perhaps as many as 150-200. But many people prefer not to acknowledge any sort of hearing issues — just like my parents, both of whom had (past tense for Dad) or have (present tense for Mom) hearing loss.

"There are five deaf kids in the LCPS system, and only one of them is mainstreamed," Williams said. She noted that many parents with deaf children do not learn to sign, and that LCAD also works as advocates for those who have no voice.

During the meeting, as in most any meeting, several conversations were going on at the same time. I recalled learning at my old ASL lessons that, as in vocal conversations, it is not polite to eavesdrop when one is near a conversation between deaf folks, but it is hard not to pay attention at least a little. Besides, my grasp of the language was returning only very, very slowly.

And there was a lot of humor in the conversations. Williams shared one of her pet peeves: She loves the hamburgers served at Sonic Drive-Ins, but she's mad since she can't go through the drive-up window.

Someone else quipped that she would like to have captioned radio shows. Someone else added, much more seriously, that there is a lot of misinformation out about the deaf community and deaf culture.



Lisa Aguilar, whose husband is deaf, picked up this thread: "Many think that the deaf can talk [with no difficulty], not knowing or understanding that most of us learn to talk through being able to hear." Another person offered that "learning sign is easier on the eyes, since it is very easy on the eyes, and better for those who can lip-read well." I think I noticed a touch of a smile when she said that, but I can't be sure.

Aguilar voiced another common problem that the deaf encounter. "My husband went back to the place where we had bought a new battery for our SUV in August," she related. "It was a connection problem, but the employees tried to charge him for a whole new battery. Deaf people really run a risk of being taken advantage of."

The incident ended without Aguilar's husband being required to buy a new battery, but she added that it was bad business for that store not to make a better effort to handle the situation properly.

Williams described another incident, with a dentist, who had placed a temporary crown on a tooth that was said to be good for one year. But when she returned, the dentist tried to give her another temporary crown. Her husband had to write a letter to the dentist's office to get them to apply the remaining balance of the bill for a new crown.

"I was disappointed when this happened," Williams said. "I think they tried to take advantage of my husband and they weren't as supportive as I thought they had been."

Not all businesses or service providers are opportunists, however.

Rachele Pierre, who helps coordinate outings and events for the LCAD group, said, "Farley's Restaurant, Big Lots, Burger King, Ready Ice, Albertson's and Hastings (among others) have been very helpful to us."

A recent sold-out screening of the first movie ever made in ASL (subtitled for the hearing), Universal Signs, at the Fountain Theatre also brought forth two sponsors who wanted to support the deaf community: Mountain View Market and the law firm of Huber and Hernandez. They donated generously to help cover the booking fee for the movie. It was a grand social event for the 100 or so people, deaf and hearing alike, who packed the theater.

Some people who came far too late had to be turned away. Aguilar, who kindly interpreted the event, smiled and said, "They're on deaf time."



Finding employment can present another set of challenges for the DHH community, according to Rachele Pierre. Even though she has a degree from NMSU, Pierre has been unable to find a good job. She told the group that many of the places she has applied to have been less than willing to offer accommodation for her. Angrily, she added, "Employers and private businesses are lousy in accommodating."

She shared a story about attempting to apply for a job at a Las Cruces community-service organization. "I went and introduced myself and tried writing (back and forth) why I was there. They would not take my resume, and asked me for an ID instead. I tried to tell them I had come to apply for work, but I was really turned off by their response."

Pierre, a vibrant, animated woman who is now taking more classes at NMSU, added, "I've lost a lot of motivation to look for a job. There are too many barriers, and the jobs go to hearing people."

Williams, who can lip-read as well as speak ASL, put in that in terms of technology to assist the further accommodation of the deaf community to the hearing community, New Mexico is at least five years behind the times. She added a typical complaint of many area residents, deaf and hearing alike, "Las Cruces is stuck in the past."



Some of Pierre's classes at NMSU are helping her spruce up her English skills. There are important differences between ASL and English, she explained: "The grammar is much different."

Williams added that there are no articles in ASL, and that the wording of a sentence is often different than English. [need first name and ID] Green noted that ASL is actually based partly on the French language.

The reason for that goes back to ASL's multicultural origins. A Spanish Benedictine monk, Pedro Ponce de Leon, is credited with first developing a way for the deaf to communicate with others, mainly through gesturing. Although his method never really served anyone outside the aristocracy, he did start a school for deaf children in Madrid in the 1500s.

Others borrowed and/or improved on the monk's efforts. In the late 1700s, an institute for the deaf was founded in France by Abb de l'Epe, who improved upon a system already in use, OFSL (Old French Sign Language). This language was improved in turn by various institutions and individuals over the years, notably Laurent Clerc, who was one of the first teachers of the deaf in America. Clerc is most often credited with bringing OFSL to this country.

Then, however, in a movement led by Alexander Graham Bell (who did a lot of work with the deaf, and was married to a deaf woman), signing was pushed out of favor and replaced with an oral method of communication that relied on speech and lip reading.

In the 1950s, a professor at what is now known as Gallaudet University, William Stokoe, did a study of signing among students at the university. He concluded that ASL passed the tests of a true language, as it had sentence structure and its own form of grammar, among other things.

Today, there are no statistics of how many people speak ASL as their primary language, but rough estimates range from 500,000 to 2 million worldwide.



Williams said that anyone who is deaf should learn ASL. For children who need to learn it, such as hearing children with parents who are deaf, that training should start by age two.

"By then, the years of language acquisition have been closed," she explained. "A deaf child who has parents who don't sign? Well, those parents are often in denial or sometimes have used midwives who can't tell if a baby is deaf or not. A lot of times when hearing parents do follow up, they get medical options, and not language or cultural options."

This comment got a round of groans from the group, as the subject of cochlear implants came up. The implant is a sort of bionic ear, where an electronic device with a microphone and a radio frequency transducer are used to stimulate all of the working auditory nerves of the patient. Expensive (more than $40,000) and controversial, more than 30,000 people worldwide have undergone the procedure. It is generally seen as most effective for post-lingually deaf adults, who lose their hearing after the acquisition of speech and language, and pre-lingually deaf children, prior to learning speech and language.

The controversy in the deaf community arises from the fact that deaf people see the cochlear implant procedure as a way to say that deafness is a disability that needs to be "fixed." In this view, the implant disallows the recipients, especially children, access to the deaf culture, and often does not allow them to learn or use ASL as their primary language.

Pierre said, "Why do we need to be 'fixed'? Since many adults receive SSI (Supplemental Security Income), the government thinks it is cheaper for kids to have implants. Who should identify which culture they should belong to? It's confusing not knowing which culture they belong to, and how to find ways to succeed."

According to the American Speech-Language Hearing Institute, it is indeed true that "cochlear implantation consistently ranks among the most cost-effective medical procedures ever reported, according to research completed by the Johns Hopkins University and the University of California-San Diego. These studies indicate that cochlear implantation can result in a net savings of more than $53,000 per child versus the more than $1 million average expected lifetime cost of a child who has profound hearing loss prior to language development."

Many insurance companies, however, do not cover the procedure. New Mexico is among the states that do not mandate that insurance companies cover cochlear implants for those who do choose the procedure.



Neighboring states are ahead of New Mexico in meeting the needs of the DHH community. Green, who used to teach in Arizona, said that ASL is required for teachers there, even if a class has only a few deaf children. "They didn't want the others to think they were different."

"The deaf don't have thought deficits," Williams added, "but there are SO many barriers."

To counteract the large gap that the members of the deaf community feel exists locally, LCAD members hope to one day see a Deaf Center open locally that would allow for interaction between the deaf and hearing cultures. Green said that she would like to see such a center offer free ASL classes for the parents of deaf children, and a program that would allow hospitals to have a resource for parents of deaf infants.

Williams continued, "Many people in the country do accept deaf culture and continue to become educated about it. We have to continue to prove we can do any job and should be treated the same as our hearing peers. It takes more education and constant exposure and focus on the abilities of the deaf rather than the disparities."

All in the now quiet room nodded their heads in agreement.

Robert Durio, the club vice president, looked to me with a smile and asked, "Now do you understand us a little bit better?"

Yes, I do.



For information on the Las Cruces Association of the Deaf, see their Web page at www.freewebs.com/lcad Other useful sites include: www.nmad.org, www.nmsd.k12.nm.us, and www.cdhh.state.nm.us.



Senior writer Jeff Berg lives in Las Cruces.






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