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March 5, 2004

For child of deaf, a career sign

From: New York Daily News - New York,NY,USA - Mar 5, 2004

The Pendleton kids called it the "flipper."

As hearing children growing up with two deaf parents, there was no one around to tell them what other folks called the thing their mother used to turn pancakes over.

So the spatula was the flipper - named not for form, but for its function.

Celeste Owens-Samuels grins when she tells that story, which tells a lot about her life, and life's work.

Born in Harlem and raised in Bedford-Styvesant, Owens-Samuel, 51, went on to found several groups for the deaf, including the Stuyvesant Association for the Deaf, the New York City Deaf and Hard of Hearing Parents Association, and the New York City National Alliance of Black Interpreters.

She also is a former national vice president of Black Deaf Advocates, a 20-year-old group that addresses issues of African-American deaf people and families with deaf members.

Now working as a sign language interpreter for colleges, governmental and social service agencies around the city, Owens-Samuels is quite comfortable in a career that found her, rather than the other way around.

She says that even though her parents, James and Rosalind Pendleton, are deaf, when she was growing up she never knew there was such a community of people out there.

But when she discovered that there was, Owens-Samuels found that most of the issues deaf people were dealing with directly affected her life.

Like the flipper.

It's logical that hearing children of deaf parents would have less verbal stimulation while growing up and would therefore develop language skills more slowly than children with hearing parents.

Owens-Samuel said a neighbor noticed that was the case with her, her sister and four brothers. So her parents placed each of them in day care and preschools as soon as possible.

Still, as in most such households, the Pendletons developed a sort of "household" sign language, gestures which meant the same thing to everyone in the house.

"You develop your own language," she said. "Everyone in our house knew what the flipper was."

She had to unlearn much of those when she started learning the standardized sign language she now uses everyday.

Though she often acted as interpreter for her parents as they conducted household business, it was Owens-Samuels' mother who got her involved in the hearing-impaired world when she persuaded her daughter to come to an informal club of deaf people they formed in their Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.

Then in her 30s, Owens-Samuels said a deaf man in his early 20s ("That was new to me too. I thought all deaf people were old, like my parents," she said) saw her signing and speaking, and asked if she could come with him to his job and help him resolve a problem he was having with a supervisor.

"No one signed in his house," Owens-Samuels said. "Studies have found that if the parents are deaf the children learn to sign, but if the children are deaf, the parents seldom learn to sign."

She wasn't able to help him.

"I wasn't an interpreter then," she said. "I could sign and communicate, but I could not interpret. I knew many personal signs, but I did not know all of the professional signs."

But she kept going back to her mother's club, eventually forming the Stuyvesant group, which was named for the street where her parents still live.

Owens-Samuels became involved with Black Deaf Advocates after she told her mother she had met an African-American teacher who was deaf.

"My mother said she had wanted to be a teacher as well, but when she was in school, the leading university in this country for the deaf did not accept black people.

"It was hard for me to believe because my parents always had deaf friends of every race, but society at large was not like that," Owens-Samuels said.

At a friend's urging, Owens-Samuels took sign classes with Alan Champion at LaGuardia Community College.

A mother of one now living in Brooklyn Heights, Owens-Samuels counts students at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Borough of Manhattan Community College and Hunter College among her many clients.

She also remains active in deaf advocacy circles.

"Deaf people can do anything you can do, they just can't hear," she said.

The New York City Deaf and Hard of Hearing Parents Association will hold a fashion show and fund-raiser May 8 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the St. Phillips Center. The center is in the Citicorp building, at 53rd St. and Lexington Ave. Call (718) 390-6642 for information.

© 2004 Daily News, L.P.