Rochester (NY): Where Sign Language Is Far From Foreign

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Dec 25 19:13:46 UTC 2006

>>From the NYTimes, December 25, 2006

Where Sign Language Is Far From Foreign


ROCHESTER, N.Y., Dec. 22 Waiters take orders using American Sign Language.
Doctors offices are equipped with videophones that flash rather than ring.
The latest movies are shown with captions. Tucked in the western part of
New York, Rochester is home to the nations largest deaf population per
capita, with about 90,000 people who are deaf or hard of hearing living
among the metropolitan areas 700,000 residents.  The citys transformation
began in 1968 with the opening of the National Technical Institute for the
Deaf. The communitys embracing of all things deaf has provided comfort to
a city where many industries and young people have fled for more
prosperous parts in recent years.

Whats happening in Rochester today will influence the rest of the country
years from now, said Thomas Holcomb, a professor of deaf studies from
Ohlone College in Fremont, Calif. Its on the frontier. It is here that the
world of the deaf intersects the world of the hearing as in no other city.
People outside Rochester know us for that, said Maggie Brooks, the
executive of Monroe County. Were proving ourselves as a leader. This was
not always the case. When the institute was established here with the
notion of offering the most mainstream environment possible, open not only
to signers but to nonsigners alike, controversy swirled like snow in
February off Lake Ontario.

People were honestly scared, Professor Holcomb, who is deaf, said through
an interpreter. With signing at the root of the deaf culture, they thought
it would destroy everything we cherished, and the future of American Sign
Language was in doubt, he said. Despite that initial concern, the student
population here has grown from a few dozen in its first year to hundreds.
Whats more, many have settled in the community. And that has attracted
other deaf people with no connection to the college. Francis Kimmes, who
moved here in 1972, was born deaf to parents who were not, and for years
struggled with a sense of isolation. Mr. Kimmes, 60, knew only three other
deaf people in his hometown, Niagara Falls, so he communicated with the
world through a frustrating mix of lip reading and gesturing. But in
Rochester he found he could make friends and lead an active life using his
first real language, American Sign. He joined a Catholic church for the
deaf, found work on the assembly line at Eastman Kodak, married, and
raised two sons.

I felt more free, Mr. Kimmes said through an interpreter. It hit me. It
was powerful. I realized, there was no real life back there, where I was.
As the deaf population has grown, the city has changed. T. Alan Hurwitz,
dean of the institute, said he has noticed that in the last few years, the
city has created more opportunities for deaf people to be part of the
community. Its everywhere you go, Dr. Hurwitz said through an interpreter.
Three movie theaters show newly released films with captions. Nearly all
of the high schools offer sign-language classes. The Memorial Art Gallery
of the University of Rochester employs a deaf docent.

That can have a deep effect on newcomers. When I came to Rochester, people
would attempt to sign; it was so neat, said Lizzie Sorkin, 25, a senior at
the college, and the first deaf student president of the entire Rochester
Institute of Technology campus, which includes 15,000 hearing students and
1,200 deaf students at the institute. I feel like Im not deaf. Im a
person. In the last few years, there has also been an influx of deaf
doctors, a rare comfort to patients who do not want to discuss their
health in front of an interpreter. Dozens of other professionals,
including real estate and insurance agents and bank officers all of them
either deaf or fluent in sign language are part of the community.  When I
first moved here, I was shocked to see so many deaf people, Alexandra
Ling, 23, who came from the Boston area to attend the institute here,
wrote in an e-mail message. I decided to stay here because I felt really
comfortable. People at stores and restaurants understand deafness, so
theres a lot less communication barriers even though they are hearing.

When Spencer Phillips moved to this city three years ago, it was the end
of a long and often difficult journey that had begun in a slippery
backyard waterslide. Mr. Phillips was 7 when he fell and struck his head,
and that night he lost most of his ability to hear. As he grew up in Los
Angeles, he knew he was different, though he did not consider himself
deaf. That changed when at age 19, Mr. Phillips, a Mormon, chose to live
among deaf adults and learn sign language for a two-year-ministry project.
I realized it was part of who I was, too, he said recently. He was 27 and
finishing law school in Utah when he read a magazine article about a deaf
doctor who had opened a practice in Rochester. I thought, that is so cool,
he said. Why not go to where she is?

Mr. Phillips won a two-year legal fellowship to help the underserved deaf
community, and never left. As for the deaf communitys fears that a
mainstream college would spell the death of American Sign Language, Dr.
Holcomb said those concerns have melted away. Indeed, the number of
interpreters, professionals and services has sharply risen. I can see that
spreading across the country, he said. Its a great model. Parker Zack, a
real estate agent, has observed more people in Rochester trying to sign,
even finger spell, than in other cities where he has lived. Mr. Zack, 50,
who can hear, became obsessed with sign language after watching his deaf
aunt and uncle converse growing up. The way they would communicate with
each other was so beautiful, he said.  It was like artwork.

As a student at the University of Rochester, Mr. Zack became friendly with
several deaf people, who suggested that he pursue his masters degree at
Gallaudet University for the deaf in Washington. He did, and after
receiving his masters in psychology, he joined the faculty there, becoming
a director of student life. But a request by a friend who was a real
estate agent to interpret for her deaf clients changed his career. The
agent made missteps, he said. Deaf people dont care how quiet the house
is, he said. When the couple was ready to buy, they showed up on his
doorstep. They didnt go to their agent, he said. They came to me. With
that, Mr. Zack became a real estate agent who specialized in serving the
deaf. After working in Virginia, he returned to Rochester, where about 70
percent of his clients are deaf, he said. I find it a lot better use of my
counseling degree than sitting in a cubicle somewhere typing memos, he
said. And he has never lacked for clients. There are always deaf people
moving here, he said.


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