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July 18, 2004

Chat club knows beauty of silence

From: Ithaca Journal, NY - Jul 18, 2004

Journal Staff

ITHACA -- Tze-Hei Yong stood out a bit in the group she had gathered Saturday in Stewart Park.

While all around her hands were animated, busy grilling and conversing, Yong was one of the few talking.

As a hearing member and founder of the Ithaca American Sign Language Chat Club, Yong said she appreciates the opportunity to hang out with fellow ASL users.

"I've been interested in sign language for a long time. I started taking sign language classes last fall and I wanted to get more practice," Yong said. "So I started up this group and it seems like it's filled an open niche."

That unfilled slot was the need for social outlets for Ithaca's deaf and hard-of-hearing community.

"There are probably 25 to 30 deaf people in Ithaca and 5 to 10 deaf children in the Ithaca schools," estimated Lisa Witchey, a long-time sign language interpreter.

While members agree it's not an overwhelming number, several noted that they are trying to build a sense of community using events like Saturday's picnic.

"We mingle and have fun," said Teresa Battisti, a local advocate for the deaf, who is deaf herself. "Sometimes people who depend on sign language don't have anyone to talk to and it can be lonely. We offer an opportunity for those who want to use ASL and we're building a more cohesive deaf community in the area."

Battisti said she has about 50 people on her e-mail news list. In addition to keeping up her Web site, IthacaHearingLoss, she also works to encourage area governments and organizations to consider offering more interpreters at meetings and events.

Currently, the Hangar Theatre offers interpreted shows at Saturday matinees and Fridays' noon children's shows. Pyramid Mall also offers open-captioned, or subtitled, movies at certain times.

But, as Lois Bragg suggested, there's room for more to be done to enhance life for the area's deaf community.

"That's the reason this group is important. There is no center for deaf people and no deaf studies at the colleges. The ASL classes only have level one and level two. There are no jobs either," said Bragg, who is a professor at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., a leading university for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Her insights may explain John Ratcliffe's sentiments. Ratcliffe, a deaf retiree who grew up in Rochester where there is a large deaf community, said he looks forward to Ithaca's community growing.

"It's a small town. I feel its important to get together and know each other better," Ratcliffe said.

The Chat Club meets twice a month for a "silent dinner" from 6-8 p.m. at Wegmans. The meetings are open to anyone -- hearing, deaf, hard-of-hearing or those who are losing their hearing -- who is interested in pursuing sign language. The next silent dinner is scheduled for Wednesday, July 21.


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