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September 7, 2003

Deaf community opens lines of communication

From: Gary Post Tribune, - Sept 7, 2003

By Diane Majeske / Post-Tribune Staff Writer

The slogan on David Robinson's T-shirt articulated the issues of the day succinctly:

"Same struggle. Different difference," it read.

Robinson was one of five speakers Saturday at the "All for One, One for All" conference held in Merrillville at the Radisson Hotel.

The statewide conference, which drew national attention, focused on the challenges and needs of the deaf community.

It was sponsored by the Ruben Center for Independent Living in cooperation with the Deaf Equal Access Federation and the Indiana Federation of Centers for Independent Living.

"We are all very, very different," said Robinson, the executive director of The Whole Person Inc., a center for independent living in Kansas City. "But we are all here for the same reason: We're here for disability rights."

The conference, attracting 80 participants from 10 states, was designed as a dialogue between deaf consumers and centers for independent living.

Certified centers nationwide receive state and federal funding and are intended to aid and empower people with disabilities to live independently.

There are six certified centers in Indiana.

But Emas Bennett, executive director of the Ruben Center, says the deaf become segregated from the centers because they are not able to communicate their needs and consequently, may not realize the resources that are available.

"The communication is a barrier," said Bennett, who is blind. "Communication is paramount."

The intent of the two-day conference is not only to discuss the barriers between the two groups, he says, but to inspire more ideas and involvement.

The speakers, the majority of whom were deaf, gave impassioned speeches, rapidly signing while an interpreter translated for those in the audience who could hear.

They touched on a variety of issues of importance for the deaf community – access, choice, and the need for advocacy and education to invoke change.

If you can't access a system, how can you change it?" asked speaker Howard Rosenblum, a Chicago attorney and founder of the Midwest Center on Law and the Deaf. "How can you know if your rights are violated if you don't even know what they are? You can't stay at home and let someone else do the work. We need to roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves."

While many who attended are deaf, they were joined by staff members at independent living centers who are interested in improving conditions for the deaf population they serve.

Interpreters were available to help the groups interact.

"As far as I know, this is the first conference like this in the U.S.," says Tina Kissick, who traveled from Grand Junction, Colo., to attend and learn more about providing deaf services in her area. "That's why I was so excited to come."

To change society, to improve conditions for the deaf community, it's imperative that people with disabilities all work together, says speaker William Olubodun, formerly the executive director for the Ohio Statewide Independent Living Council.

"If you're a lone voice out there, you get tired," he says. "The disabled community and the deaf community need to do more together – more interaction, more understanding, more looking to each other. ... Together, we can make changes. Together, we have strength."

© 2003 Gary Post Tribune