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August 13, 2003

Care center offers home, jobs for deaf

From: Oregonian, OR - Aug 13, 2003


GRESHAM -- The hot water needs to be hotter, closet clips must be lowered to meet disability requirements and the medication room needs a refrigerator, but those are minor items as Chestnut Lane prepares to open.

The four-story facility at Northeast Sixth Street and Cleveland Avenue is only the second assisted-living facility for deaf and deaf-blind elderly in the nation. It is the buzz within the deaf community, advocates say, a welcome alternative for elderly people who often are isolated in traditional nursing homes because staff and other residents don't know sign language.

Forty-three of the 70 apartments are already reserved, and the manager has no doubt the facility will be filled. The first resident moved in Monday.

But Chestnut Lane is also filling a critical need among younger deaf people: jobs. All but two of the 15 staff hired so far are deaf, and all know sign language. Experts estimate the deaf earn one-third to one-half of what hearing people are paid, and say the unemployment rate among the deaf is considerably higher.

Chestnut Lane received 115 applications for the 26 staff positions it eventually will have.

"I got three more yesterday," Chestnut Lane founder Mae Johnson said. "Another lady came in this morning and asked if she could fill out a job application."

Johnson is a Gresham nurse whose dream of building an assisted living facility grew from her experience operating a foster care home for deaf elderly people and concern for her aging parents, who are deaf. She founded Deaf Northwest, which owns Chestnut Lane in partnership with Key Community Development Corp.

Caregivers, cooks, clerical workers and a maintenance person trained last week. Johnson said the staff is excited to start work, in large part because they won't be isolated on the job.

"Everybody signs," Johnson said. "Open communication will make all the difference in their jobs. If you have a problem with your boss and you can't talk to them, there's a huge gap there."

Staff members Katherine Stewart, Chad Edinger, Janece Miracle and Erin Swiger, interviewed through an interpreter, readily agreed. Being able to communicate with fellow employees and with residents will eliminate misunderstandings, they said.

Edinger, who will be one of the lead workers when residents arrive, said he is drawn to the work because he can lift the spirits of elderly deaf residents, ensure their safety, help them communicate and provide an atmosphere in which they can make their own decisions.

Concepts in Community Living, a nonprofit that operates other care facilities, will manage Chestnut Lane. The on-site director is Darla Thompson, who arrived from Iowa to take the job. She is not deaf but is a certified interpreter.

Word of Chestnut Lane's opening and job prospects spread throughout the deaf community, Thompson said. The jobs are especially welcome in the current economic slowdown, she said.

"Nationally for the deaf it's even harder, because of the communication barrier," Thompson said. "And here they just don't have that barrier."

The training this past week included instruction on how to bathe and dress residents, first aid and cardio-pulmonary resuscitation. A pair of interpreters, taking turns to avoid wearing themselves out, translated lessons into sign language.

When a staff member had a question, he or she stood and faced the other employees, so they could see the question as it was signed.

The interpreters, who work with the deaf in a number of settings, were impressed by what they saw at Chestnut Lane.

"I think it's totally awesome," said Sandy McKnight, whose mother-in-law is deaf. "This is the fear of our generation: Our parents are getting older, what in the world do we do with them?"

"I'm excited about the job prospects for the deaf," said Brenda Bentley. "There's so much hidden discrimination in the job market, so it's nice that there's a facility where they'll be in the majority."

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