As Town for Deaf Takes Shape in South Dakota

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Mar 21 20:01:33 UTC 2005

>>From the NYTimes,

March 21, 2005

As Town for Deaf Takes Shape, Debate on Isolation Re-emerges

SALEM, S.D. - Standing in an empty field along a wind-swept highway,
Marvin T. Miller, who is deaf, envisions the town he wants to create here:
a place built around American Sign Language, where teachers in the new
school will sign, the town council will hold its debates in sign language
and restaurant workers will be required to know how to sign orders.
Nearly 100 families - with people who are deaf, hard of hearing or who can
hear but just want to communicate in sign language - have already publicly
declared their intention to live in Mr. Miller's village, to be called
Laurent, after Laurent Clerc, a French educator of the deaf from the

Planners, architects and future residents from various states and other
countries are gathering at a camp center in South Dakota on Monday and
through the week to draw detailed blueprints for the town, which could
accommodate at least 2,500 people. Mr. Miller, who has been imagining this
for years, intends to break ground by fall.

"Society isn't doing that great a job of, quote-unquote, integrating us,"
Mr. Miller, 33, said through an interpreter. "My children don't see role
models in their lives: mayors, factory managers, postal workers, business
owners. So we're setting up a place to show our unique culture, our unique

While deaf enclaves, like the one that existed in Martha's Vineyard
decades ago, have cropped up throughout the nation, this would be the
first town expressly created for people who sign, its developers say. Even
the location, in sparsely populated South Dakota, was selected with the
intent of rapidly building political strength for the nation's millions of
deaf and hard-of-hearing people, a group that has won few elected offices
around the country.

But in the complicated political world of deaf culture, Laurent is an
increasingly contentious idea. For some, like Mr. Miller; his wife,
Jennifer, who is also deaf; and their four deaf children, it seems the
simplest of wishes: to live in a place where they are fully engaged in
day-to-day life. Others, however, particularly advocates of technologies
that help deaf people use spoken language, wonder whether such a town
would merely isolate and exclude the deaf more than ever.

"We think there is a greater benefit for people to be part of the whole
world," said Todd Houston, executive director of the Alexander Graham Bell
Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Washington. "I understand
the desire to be around people like ourselves, and I don't have a problem
with that, but I don't think it's very wise. This is a little bit of
circling-the-wagons mentality, if you ask me."

Over the past 15 years, he said, it has become easier for the deaf and
hard of hearing to grow up using spoken language, because of a steady rise
in the use of cochlear implants, more early diagnoses and therapies for
deaf children and efforts to place some deaf children in mainstream
schools. That fact has set off intense political debate over what it means
to be deaf and what mode of communication - signing or talking - the deaf
should focus on.

Those who want to live in Laurent, though, say their intent is not
exclusivity at all, but the inclusion of diverse people, especially those
who do not have the luxury of communicating with speech. "We are not
building a town for deaf people," said M. E. Barwacz, Mr. Miller's
mother-in-law and his business partner in creating Laurent. "We are
building a town for sign language users. And one of the biggest groups we
expect to have here is hearing parents with deaf children."

Ms. Barwacz, who intends to live in Laurent, is not deaf. She has two
daughters, one deaf and one not, and eight grandchildren, four of them
deaf. Nationally, experts report that some 90 percent of deaf children are
born to hearing parents, setting up a quandary, in some cases, about what
language to use in a single household.

As early as the 1800's, deaf leaders debated the possibility of a "deaf
state," said Gerard Buckley, an official at the National Technical
Institute for the Deaf in Rochester. But the notion came and went.
Elsewhere, because of proximity to schools and businesses tied to the
deaf, large concentrations of deaf people have gathered in cities like
Rochester; Washington; Olathe, Kan.; Frederick, Md.; and Sioux Falls, S.D.

The difference in Laurent, say some among the 92 families who have
reserved spaces in the town from as far as London and Australia, is that
every element of it would be designed with them in mind. The homes and
businesses, they said, would incorporate glass and open space for easy
visibility across wide distances. Fire and police services would be
designed with more lights and fewer sirens. High-speed Internet
connections would be available all over town, since the Internet and Video
Relay Service have become vital modes of communication for deaf people.
And any shops, businesses or restaurants would be required to be
sign-language friendly.

Here in Salem, a dusty 125-year-old farming town of 1,300 three miles from
the proposed site of Laurent, people seem unsure of what to make of the
idea. "No one has ever come along and tried to start a town," said Joseph
Kolbeck, the local barber.

Along the quiet main drag through town, Mr. Miller and Ms. Barwacz, who
are originally from Michigan, recently opened a storefront in the old King
Koin Laundromat to create and promote Laurent. They moved to Salem not
long ago, choosing the area after surveying nearly the entire country
looking at factors like population, climate and cost of land.

Some people here wonder how the proposed town of 2,500 would mesh with
McCook County's 6,000 residents and its economy of corn, cows and pigs.
Others say they doubt Laurent will ever become reality.

Mr. Miller and Ms. Barwacz have revealed little about the costs and their
plans for financing Laurent. They say they are using family money, as well
as some from a group of "angel investors," led by a man with a deaf
daughter who wishes to remain anonymous. First Dakota National Bank is
helping to secure financing, and the two have optioned 275 acres so far.
They say they are spending about $300,000 for the planning work during the
meetings that will end on Saturday. Those who have reserved spaces in
Laurent will be expected to put down $1,000 deposits for condominiums and
home lots within the next few months.

For many of those people - from states like California, Florida and New
York - a move to prairie land in South Dakota (population 760,000) would
seem to be an enormous culture shock. But they plan to start businesses
like shops and restaurants, gas stations and hotels, and the benefits,
many of them say, outweigh any concerns they have about the location.

Lawrence J. Brick, a retired school administrator from Philadelphia, said
Laurent held attractions that most hearing people would struggle even to
grasp: no longer having to shy away from the neighbors, fearing he could
not communicate; no longer having to guess what a store clerk is saying
about a price; no longer having to apologize for being deaf.

Although some people argue that Laurent might isolate deaf people,
H-Dirksen L. Bauman, who directs the master's program in deaf studies at
Gallaudet University, said the plans actually marked an important
collaboration between the deaf and the hearing, one of a sort not always
encouraged by the deaf community. This is especially significant, he said,
as more hearing people are learning American Sign Language, now the fifth
most-studied language on college campuses.

"Hearing people are not welcomed in deaf residential schools, in deaf
clubs," Mr. Bauman said. "But there is no audiogram you will need to buy
land in Laurent, South Dakota. There's simply a commitment to live in a
visually centered environment that supports manual as opposed to spoken

But Dr. Michael Novak of Urbana, Ill., who has been performing cochlear
implants since 1984, said he was convinced that the trend among the deaf
was actually shifting toward therapies that could help the next generation
of deaf people use spoken language.

"Communities like this have a real place for people who cannot or choose
not to use the hearing technology," Dr. Novak said of Laurent. "But over
time, that number will be reducing." He wonders then, he said, if the
future of a notion like Laurent might fade away.

For his part, though, Mr. Miller said reports of the "death of sign
language and deaf culture continue to be greatly exaggerated." Not
everyone, he said, is eligible for or would even want to receive
technologies like cochlear implants. "I do not want one for myself," he
said. "I am very happy being deaf. To me, this is like asking a black or
Asian person if he/she would take a pill to turn into a white person."

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