Deaf community calls for more resources, education

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Especially when compared to cities like Rochester, Tompkins County has a relatively low population of Deaf and hard of hearing people. The reason for this, as sources connected to the Deaf and hard of hearing community say, is a combination of multiple factors that have ultimately driven Deaf people away from and out of the county.

The problem is a cycle, said interpreter Samantha Geffey, who lives and works in Rochester. This cycle, she said, is one where the county does not provide sufficient resources for the Deaf and hard of hearing community, causing those people to gravitate to more Deaf-friendly areas, which in turn decreases demand for accommodations and resources.

“A lot of people tend to stay in the Deaf-populated pockets of the country,” Geffey said. “Why wouldn’t you want to live where you have access to [resources] versus having to fight for it?”

Brenda Schertz, a recently hired American Sign Language professor at Cornell University, strongly identifies as “Deaf,” which contrasts with “deaf” as a term representing both Deafness and the larger Deaf culture. She said Deaf and hard of hearing people find quality in community. She has lived in Portland, Maine, and Rochester, New York, where she has seen a vastly different scene than in Tompkins County.

“Many Deaf people have visited Ithaca, and after remarking how beautiful it is, they would end their narratives with how unfortunate it is that there are so few Deaf people living in town and that there isn’t a thriving Deaf community in this area,” Schertz said.

Leah Murphy-Swiller, a Deaf counselor who has been working at Ithaca College for six years, echoed that sentiment, saying having a substantial Deaf community is crucial for the success of a Deaf or hard of hearing person.

“The history of Deaf culture relies on the community,” Murphy-Swiller said. “The community is a big part of what helps a Deaf person thrive.”

Amy Jo DeKoeyer, student transition and Deaf services coordinator at the Finger Lakes Independence Center, said she has seen the cycle, or “downward spiral,” as she calls it, affect interpreting services as well, leading to fewer interpreters and less availability.

This means places like hospitals have to rely more on unreliable interpreting technologies, leading to a lower quality of care for Deaf patients, DeKoeyer said, and this is just one example of how resources can diminish over time.

“If I’m still … educating people that are in the medical field about the ADA law that they need to provide an interpreter, … we have a ways to go,” she said.

Employment is another large area of concern in the Deaf community, and not just in the county. Complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by providing interpreting services can come at a cost, and many businesses say the burden is too much, said interpreter Lisa Witchey. This can discourage employers from hiring Deaf people in the first place or lead employers to select Deaf people for menial labor jobs.

Communication with those outside the workplace can be difficult as well, as a lack of understanding means many hearing people are not willing to do what it takes to make a Deaf person feel welcome, Witchey said.

“Just going to a store could be difficult,” Witchey said. “It’s a daily struggle dealing with hearing people who are not willing to communicate in a way that is effective for the Deaf person.”

Much of that unwillingness stems from ignorance regarding the Deaf community, as several sources interviewed said. Misconceptions regarding the Deaf and hard of hearing community remain, causing barriers that make it difficult for people to succeed and thrive in the way Deaf culture encourages.

Some of the misconceptions Deaf and hard of hearing people continue to face include a lack of intelligence, a lack of ability, universal lip-reading skills and others. All paint an inaccurate picture of an entire community, said Susan Wardwell, director of Sign Language Solutions, an interpreter referral service.

“It seems crazy, but some of those beliefs are still out there in this day and age,” Wardwell said.

Murphy-Swiller said that there is often the perception that Deaf people are lacking, when, in fact, Deaf people can offer something that many hearing people cannot. Deaf people tend to be more aware and more sensitive to visuals, she said, which can help in situations like reading a room during a busy meeting.

“We can really add a lot to any employer,” Murphy-Swiller said.

Some resources exist for Deaf and hard of hearing people in Tompkins County, many sources emphasized. FLIC provides technologies designed to help Deaf people communicate, both with other Deaf people and with hearing people, and SLS provides interpreters for the area.

Murphy-Swiller said IC provides interpreters for when she attends large meetings, along with other accommodation resources. IC also has a Deaf studies minor, which senior Kimberly Caceci, a hard of hearing student, said has strongly helped her connect with her culture and learn more about ASL.

“It was just my way to get in touch with my roots or, at least, the experiences and the community that I started to learn in high school,” Caceci said.

Cornell is also making strides. Led by the Cornell University Deaf Awareness Project, Cornell will offer ASL courses for the first time as an option for the language requirement in the College of Arts and Sciences in 2019. Schertz will lead the ASL program, and she hopes to do more Deaf advocacy work on campus.

The best way to bring Deaf people back to the county is to make Tompkins County a Deaf- and ASL-friendly place to be, sources said. A large part of that is education, both for Deaf children and for hearing people.

Many parents of deaf children prefer to use spoken communication rather than use sign language with their children, Schertz said. She has personally seen how delaying that introduction for a Deaf child can mean delayed language, social and emotional development.

“That’s why it’s very, very important for people to be aware of the Deaf community, Deaf culture and American Sign Language and how much positive impact that would make for a Deaf child’s life rather than deprive them of a language that is visually accessible,” Schertz said.

As for educating hearing people about Deafness, classes in ASL, Deaf studies majors and minors, Deaf coffee hours and other resources all hosted by Deaf people are good places to start, Schertz said.

FLIC provides ASL courses for people in Tompkins County, and DeKoeyer said she has seen an encouraging increase in interest in the classes in recent years.

“We’re realizing more and more that signing is acceptable,” DeKoeyer said. “It’s something that people want to be able to do, where before, they shunned it.”

Schertz said any education needs to come directly from the source – Deaf people.

“When people have access to this information directly from a Deaf person, rather than a hearing professional, I hope they will gain an understanding that it is OK to be Deaf and that there are many positive components to being Deaf,” she said.

Providing education about Deaf interactions to employers, law enforcement officials, hospitals and other areas are all part of the equation as well, DeKoeyer said.

One event all sources discussed was the Kitchen Theatre’s recent production, “Tribes,” a play about a Deaf teenager who grew up without ASL and wants to learn it later in life. The performance had one night that provided an interpreted service, which included both Witchey and Geffey.

The play itself is a great stride, as well as the interpreted performance, but there is still room for improvement – like making all shows interpreted, regardless of apparent demand, Murphy-Swiller said.

Resources are one thing, Murphy-Swiller said, but there has to be an understanding of why those resources are important, too.

“There are resources, but behind resources, there needs to be an awareness of the need and the benefits of having a Deaf person,” she said. “There needs to be a desire for that.”

Caceci, who has been active at IC in advocating for a more Deaf-friendly campus, said she has felt left out of discussions of the diversity that Ithaca is known for.

“Being hard of hearing, I want there to be more conversations about Deaf culture,” she said.

Still, Caceci said, she is grateful for the opportunities IC and Ithaca do provide.

“A lot of times, yes, I am hurt because the conversation in Ithaca, it doesn’t always include me,” Caceci said. “However, I’m very grateful for Ithaca because my experience there has just gotten me in touch a lot with my roots and with communities that I identify with.”

Ultimately, Schertz and others said, Tompkins County is a beautiful, thriving place to live that still has some ways to grow to bring Deaf and hard of hearing people to its communities.

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