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December 30, 2002

Library links people in hearing, deaf worlds

From: Cleveland Plain Dealer, OH - 30 Dec 2002

Tom Breckenridge
Plain Dealer Reporter

Cleveland Heights- The Coventry library's unique collection of materials for the deaf is infused with the unflagging spirit of Junior Lee "J.R." Doughty, a deaf man who wants you to know a bit about his world.

On a recent Monday night, 15 hearing adults and teens hung on every letter and word that spilled from the hands and fluid gestures of Doughty, a former actor and retired custodian here who, since the 1980s, has taught the basics of sign language to hundreds of Greater Clevelanders.

During the "Proud Hands" session, Doughty grunted occasionally for emphasis, smiled broadly and put his elbows at his sides and shook his hands in the air - sign language for applause as each student finished a turn at signing the alphabet.

"I want hearing people to know about the deaf," Doughty signed through an interpreter after the hourlong class. "A lot of hearing people don't understand what it's like."

The hearing and the deaf can learn a lot at the Coventry Road branch of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library, recognized as a regional center for materials and services for and about the deaf and the hard of hearing.

The library, 1925 Coventry Road, has several thousand books, magazines, closed-caption videos and advanced texts on American Sign Language and interpreting.

"Nobody else is doing it," Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library Director Steve Wood said of the branch's service.

Both Cleveland Public and Cuyahoga County Public libraries have hundreds of close-captioned videos and books on deaf culture. Cuyahoga County libraries, with advance request, will supply interpreters for the deaf for branch programs.

But the area's two largest library systems don't have the concentration of materials accessible at the Coventry branch.

"From everybody I've talked to, they are outstanding," Cleveland Public Library spokesman David Williams said.

Branch Director Abigail Noland is fluent in sign language and each worker has been trained in signing.

Noland, whose husband and father are hard of hearing, took over as director 1½ years ago. The former hospital chaplain is constantly updating the deaf collection and a library bulletin board that lists events and services for the deaf.

The branch programming includes basic Internet computing taught by Noland, Doughty's "Proud Hands" class and story times with sign language interpreters. Cheryl Murgel, community resource manager at the Cleveland Hearing and Speech Center, has been one of the storytellers.

Murgel, who is deaf, said in an e-mail that deaf and hard-of-hearing children "embrace the special time of understanding and relating to the stories in American Sign Language."

The deaf community appreciates the library's resources, she said.

The local Society for the Deaf has given the library $2,000 for support of sign language classes, said Cathy Graham, the group's president.

Hearing people with deaf family members find the library "a great place to go," Graham said.

The inspiration for the library's deaf collection was Doughty, 66. The collection is marked among the shelves with a small metal plate reading " 'J.R.' L. Doughty Deaf Collection, September 2001." That's when Doughty retired after 21 years as the library's custodian.

In the 1980s, former branch Director Shony Long and her staff felt frustration in trying to talk with Doughty, a good-natured and wise man who thrived on his rapport with hearing colleagues. So the staff, with Doughty's encouragement, began learning sign language and gathering books for the deaf.

"Through our difficulty in communicating with him, we realized what a significant problem this was for a not insignificant amount of our customer base," Wood said.

"When someone is visually impaired, you know it. You know you must do something different.

"For someone who is deaf, they will move around without letting you know they are there. They won't communicate because they know we can't communicate with them."

Doughty spent his childhood struggling to connect with the hearing world. He grew up on a Louisiana farm and helped pick cotton.

Doughty doesn't know what town he was raised in because of the problems he had talking with his hearing family.

He learned sign language as an adolescent attending a school for the deaf in Raleigh, N.C. "That's when the world opened up to me," Doughty said.

The divorced father of two has been an actor for Cleveland Signstage Theatre and is a longtime familiar figure in the neighborhood.

He was once voted "Mayor of Coventry" and wore a red T-shirt with the title.

In the "Proud Hands" classes, laid-back sidekick Bruce Groves, who is hard of hearing, interpreted Doughty's instructions for the students and helped them with their signing.

Doughty and Groves kept the class focused but fun. Doughty's graceful acting skills emerged as he signed words including "alone," "hell" and "motorcycle."

For "headache," he cringed in pain and put balled-up hands to the side of his head. He mimed popping a pill and then smiled.

Students Deloise Burge, 48, and Deborah Miller, 39, said Doughty was inspiring. They were adding to skills they've learned as members of the sign language choir at Southeast Seventh-day Adventist Church in Cleveland.

"I want to communicate with the deaf and show them the way in Christ," Burge said.

"I love it," Miller said of her expanding sign-language vocabulary.

Information about the library's resources for the deaf and hard of hearing at 216-321-3400.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:, 216-999-4695

© 2002 The Plain Dealer.