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Panel shares deaf culture

When David Barnett stood in front of the Jenkins Hall classroom, his obvious enthusiasm captured the crowd’s attention. His jokes ignited giggles and guffaws from the audience and the contagious excitement in his gestures infected the room. But when Barnett finished his introduction, no one spoke a word. No one clapped.

The silence was deceptive though. The audience responded to the introduction vigorously with both hands in the air, waving fingers side to side in wordless applause.

“People who are deaf already have two cultures – deaf and hearing,” signed Barnett who teaches a deaf culture class at Tyler Junior College.

TJC’s interpreter training program, one of only about a dozen in the state, hosted what Barnett described as a “bicultural, bilingual event,” on Oct. 8, bringing deaf and hearing students and community members together for a panel discussion of the experiences and challenges of living in those dual cultures.

Though interpreters Melissa Bell and Rhonda McKinzie verbalized most of the deaf attendees’ words for them, each signer inflected and emphasized his or her words physically the way hearing people do with intonation or volume. Some signed slowly and precisely, carefully making each motion, while others signed fast and haphazardly with their entire bodies when they got excited about telling a story.

“My sign name is a J across my chin because of my smile,” signed Josephine Arner, beaming at the crowd. She and her husband Rad both lost their hearing as young children – she as a one-year-old with whooping cough, he as a three-year-old playing with car keys and an electrical outlet.

Though now grandparents of 12 who finish each other’s sentences, they first encountered the deaf world in distinct ways.

Josephine learned sign language, Spanish and English in the Philippines, while Rad was sent to an “oral school,” one of only two at the time during World War II, where he was taught to lip-read and learned to speak by placing his hands on his teacher’s face.

“My mother did not want me to learn sign language,” said Arner.

When he met Josephine however, this language barrier soon crumbled.

“She would sign to deaf people and I couldn’t understand. I would tap her shoulder and ask her what they said … Finally I was tapping her shoulder so many times, she told me I had to learn,” said Arner.

Luckily, learning new skills comes easily for Arner. A graduate of a hearing university, he used his degree in aerospace engineering to work with the International Space Station, space shuttle and stealth fighter projects. After being laid off last year, he turned his energies to embroidery – no small task when the piece in question is a mammoth 16 square foot panel of the U.S. Constitution.

Amanda Rodriguez’s talent is juggling. Not with balls or fruit, but with work, school and home life. A mother of two, Rodriguez works for TJC’s support services department while also taking full time classes. Inspired by a deaf lawyer in Austin, she wants to be a paralegal.

Though she lost about 80 percent of her hearing at the age of five, Rodriguez can speak clearly and faced difficulties growing up when people refused to believe she couldn’t hear them. Even her family resisted accepting that she was hard-of-hearing.

“[My mother would say] ‘Talk to me. Look at me. Listen to me.’ I was like ‘I can’t hear you. What’s going on?’ I constantly got whoopings all the time,” said Rodriguez. “[When I was 15] I got fed up and I told my parents ‘I’m hard-of-hearing! You have to accept the fact that I’m hard-of-hearing.'”

“The state of confusion was my world,” said Carlos Holdridge. His parents sought cures for his deafness, but it wasn’t until he started learning sign language that the haze began to dissipate.

“My world started growing,” said Holdridge.

Panelist Lisa Swierk said that when parents learn their child has a hearing impairment, they should not prevent him or her from learning to sign.

“We need to know our own language,’ said Swierk.

Panelists agreed that younger deaf people now face fewer impediments and misunderstandings interacting with others as television and other forms of popular culture continue to expose the deaf world to the general population.

New technology also benefits deaf culture, allowing those with hearing impairments to communicate effortlessly with each other and with the hearing community. In the past, TTY, a text-based telephone accessory, was one of the only ways deaf people could converse from a distance.

“When I found out about video phones – Whoa! My life changed!” said Rodriguez.

Other panelists, even those born well before the age of cell phones and the internet, said those advancements make life easier.

“I’m better with email and instant messaging than TTY,” said Rad Arner.

The panel did not embrace all developments however. Conversation touched on the topic of cochlear implants, controversial medical devices that allow people with severe hearing loss to process some sounds by bypassing the damaged portions of the ear and stimulating the auditory nerve.

“It’s more like a mechanical voice,” said Rodriguez. “Like a robot. I don’t want to hear my babies like a robot. I want to hear their real voice.”

However, one obstacle of communication remains unhurdled for those who rely on lip-reading – mustaches.

“My husband has a goatee and I have to continually remind him to please trim it right above the mouth so I can understand,” said Swierk.

Rodriguez said she wishes all TJC students would take sign language classes to improve their communication with the deaf world.

“It would be so cool!” said Rodriguez. “Everywhere you’d walk, you’d see someone signing.”

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