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October 24, 2002

Finding their own voice

From: Tuscaloosa News, AL
Oct. 24, 2002

Deaf community must overcome obstacles, prejudice to survive in the hearing world

By Markeshia Ricks
October 24, 2002

Being able to hear your co-workers at a meeting or communicate with your supervisor is an ability most people take for granted.

But for a deaf person, life without sound is not only a reality, it is a challenge in a predominately hearing world.

It also is a challenge that Michael Deuel knows better than most.

Deuel is a job coach for the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services, and he is deaf.

He also has defied most stereotypes people have about deaf people.

A Virginia native, Deuel attended schools for the deaf in Virginia, Arizona and Alabama. He also attended Gallaudet University for the deaf in Washington, D.C., and Jacksonville State University.

But despite his education and his success in landing a job with the state, Deuel said he has experienced discrimination on many occasions.

“After school I had odd jobs where I had a lot of problems with communication barriers and discrimination," Deuel said. “A big issue was the right to an interpreter."

Whenever there was a dispute at work, Deuel said he often was blamed without having the opportunity to tell his side of the story.

“As a deaf person, you are treated like you are mentally retarded or functioning on a lower level," he said. “So if something goes wrong, people automatically assume ëHe’s deaf so it must be his fault.’ "

As is the burden of most oppressed groups, a negative impression is a lasting one.

“If one of my clients gets fired, there will be no possibility of placing another deaf person there again," he said. “If the employer has a bad experience with a deaf person, then they will think that all deaf people are like that."

Deuel said ignorance and lack of advocacy by the deaf on their own behalf has played a major role in the quality of interaction with the deaf and the hearing.

“We don’t have power like the Association for the Blind, who can confront people with their voice," he said “The deaf don’t have a voice, because we have to go through an interpreter."

“If you confront a city leader with an interpreter, the leaders don’t recognize the deaf person, but talk to the interpreter because that person can hear," said Ted Kotis a sign language interpreter for the ADR office and Deuel’s co-worker.

Talking to the interpreter is frowned on in the deaf community. The interpreter is not the representative of the deaf person, but more of an instrument to facilitate communication.

Kotis often interprets for Deuel when they are on assignment in the 13 counties their office serves, and the two have encountered the same problem when negotiating job placement for their clients.

“When Ted and I go to businesses together, I have to emphasize that I am the coach and not there for a job," Deuel said.

Kotis and Deuel are part of a four-person team that provides vocational services to people who are deaf and hard of hearing. The team also sets up services to expose the deaf and hearing community to the needs of the deaf.

“There really isn’t a lot of awareness in the Tuscaloosa area," Kotis said.

Though the worlds may be different, Deuel said there are many commonalties.

“There are deaf people who are professionals ó doctors, reporters and politicians," he said. “We have had success and made strides just like everyone else."

He said it is important that deaf children get adequate opportunity for education.

“During the first five years of life is when it all happens," he said. “If a child isn’t learning at home and the school system isn’t providing adequate services, then I consider that neglect."

Often deaf children who have not had access to adequate deaf services fall behind their hearing peers and are labeled mentally retarded or learning disabled.

“Being born with deafness is one disability," Deuel said. “But being labeled learning disabled because you didn’t get what you needed is a second disability."

Linda Bingham and Brenda Weem are also on the four-person team.

“During the first few years of life, a child is able to learn more at a faster pace," Bingham said. “After that, it slows down.

“Because the past practice was to deny the deaf an education, many have missed those first few years. And you can never get that back."

Bingham helps get interpreters to people who need them, including students at the University of Alabama and Shelton State Community College.

“It costs about $9,000 per student per semester to have an interpreter," she said. “Right now we have three students who have interpreters that are supported through our office."

Such a costly endeavor would probably be insurmountable if paid out-of-pocket along with tuition, room and board and books.

But because neither school has faculty on staff that are licensed interpreters like Jacksonville State University has, the local schools work with the ADR office.

This is one of the many reasons the team is trying to establish a call center that could be a central location for obtaining interpreter services.

Bingham said not being able to communicate with coworkers and supervisors can cost deaf people promotions and advancement.

“Our office is very verbal, and we have to be very conscious about making sure Michael gets the information if he’s not physically present," she said. “But he misses out on group social interaction and getting to know people."

“I have to work twice as hard to get equal treatment," Deuel said. “I don’t talk or chat with my co-workers, I just work extra hard to impress my boss."

But Deuel believes that deaf people will find their voice.

“Deaf people tend to let things go when we are discriminated against. It’s sitting in the back of the bus if no one stands up for our rights," he said. “But it can change in one day, and one day we will stand up and tell you that that’s enough. It might be one day soon."

© 2002 The Tuscaloosa News