IM this article to a friend!

December 14, 2003

Oxford House Taking Charge: Sign Oxford House serves deaf people

From: The Columbian, WA - Dec 14, 2003

By KATHIE DURBIN, Columbian staff writer

When Ronald Pendleton cranks up the stereo volume at the Oxford House he shares with three roommates, Ice-T's bass-heavy rap erupts in a burst of eardrum-busting, window-rattling, vibrating sound.

He is not trying to annoy the neighbors; after 10 p.m., the music stops. But he and his roommates can't hear the music. They're deaf. They need to feel it in their bones.

Fifteen months ago, there was no music in Pendleton's life. When he showed up at the Northwest Deaf Addiction Center in east Vancouver, Pendleton was toothless, ashen-faced, shivering and down to 100 pounds.

Too weak to walk more than a short distance, he couldn't read or even process information, said Jackie Hyman, the center's director.

"I didn't know if he would make it," recalled Mary Jacobs, a counselor at the center.

He did, and now he is president of Sign Oxford House, the first successful Oxford House for deaf people in the United States.

Pendleton, 46, grew up deaf in Newark, N.J. He started using drugs at age 14. For years he freebased heroin and cocaine. Last year, in a state of physical and emotional collapse, he left the streets of Newark and entered a detox center in Minnesota. A month later, he was admitted to the Deaf Addiction Center.

"Eight of my friends died," Pendleton recalled as Hyman interpreted in the tidy living room of Sign Oxford House. "That's when I made a decision to save my life. I was crying all the time. I missed my life."

Today his weight is up to 155 pounds. He wears his graying hair in dreadlocks, attends a 12-step meeting every day and helps to keep the house spotless.

Sign Oxford House opened last December in Vancouver's Shumway neighborhood. All its members went through treatment at the Deaf Addiction Center, which opened in April 2001 in a former long-term care facility for AIDS patients. The center provides culturally sensitive residential, all-day and outpatient group therapy to deaf men and women.

In part because Vancouver is home to the Washington School for the Deaf, Clark County has the highest per capita number of deaf residents in the state. Just two and a half years after its opening, the Deaf Addiction Center draws clients from around the country and has helped to make Clark County a magnet for services to deaf addicts.

Three years ago, there was one 12-step meeting with signing available in the Portland-Vancouver area. Now at least one 12-step meeting accessible to the deaf is held in the metro area every night of the week.

Before the addiction center opened, deaf addicts seeking treatment here had almost a 100 percent failure rate, said Cleve Thompson, director of drug and alcohol programs for Clark County.

"Their biggest complaints were that they were isolated, there weren't appropriate services for them in treatment, and they didn't have a support system after they got out of treatment," Thompson said.

Deaf people have slightly higher rates of addiction than the population at large, said Hyman. "Part of it is their isolation, part of it is the communications breakdown."

Hyman, a recovering addict herself, taught deaf students in Seattle for many years. Deaf friends encouraged her to get training as a drug counselor. Three years ago, Thompson recruited her to start a residential treatment program in Vancouver for deaf people. It is one of only five in the nation.

Hyman quickly saw the need for clean and sober housing for clients leaving treatment. She found the modest one-story house and furnished it with garage-sale sofas, tables and chairs.

Recovering deaf addicts need other recovering deaf addicts to help them break through the isolation, Hyman said. In a hearing world, "they have no way to interpret social situations and day-to-day interactions." They miss cues and can't easily communicate the challenges of sobriety, from opening their first bank account to weathering the holidays.

"If you can do it with people you can communicate with, people who know your culture and your language, that allows you to sustain your recovery," Hyman said.

The majority of today's deaf adults grew up in homes where their parents could not sign, she said.

"They had a hard time expressing themselves. When you don't have coping skills, alcohol and drugs are the great equalizers."

Justin Ridling, a fresh-faced 28-year-old who aspires to be a chef on a cruise ship, turned to drugs as a teenager to assuage his loneliness. Hard of hearing rather than deaf, he learned to sign so he could live at Oxford House.

"I was picked on most of my life," he said. "I followed people who would welcome me. I went to bars to meet people who didn't care about my deafness. I chose the wrong path and it was hard to get off it."

Starting at age 15, Ridling used pot, pills, alcohol and then heroin. He tried drug court an alternative to incarceration that helps recovering addicts get into treatment, find housing and seek employment but it didn't work for him. "I didn't have a support system," he said.

At one point he stayed clean for 10 months, then relapsed after he looked up his old using friends.

"Thank God for my counselor," Ridling said. "She said I should go to Oxford House."

At first he didn't like the discipline and the introspection.

"I didn't want to stay with it, I wanted to be done with it. I thought being sober was boring. But when you get sober you get more in touch with your emotions. I love nature now. I have a higher power in my life."

Electronic communication has been a godsend for deaf addicts. Though Sign Oxford House operates on the same model as all other Oxford Houses, it does have some special features, including two donated computers with Internet access. Communicating with other deaf addicts throughout the country by e-mail, residents build their own support networks. They send electronic instant messages to friends. All the residents have two-way pagers, which let them summon help quickly in emergencies.

"The deaf use instant messaging a lot," Hyman said. "At meetings, they ask for e-mail instead of a phone number."

Sign Oxford House can accommodate six men. In early December, after some turnover, it had four. Pendleton, Ridling and Joey Mclallen are all original residents.

"The three of us, we're the foundation of the house," Pendleton said. "We keep it going."

Even in sign language, there's no mistaking the pride.

Copyright © 2003 by The Columbian Publishing Co. P.O. Box 180, Vancouver, WA 98666.