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February 6, 2005

Technology signals a new deaf culture

From: Baltimore Sun, MD - Feb 6, 2005

Face-to-face meetings decline as use of e-mail, text-messaging increases; Membership in clubs dips

By Jeff Kunerth
Orlando Sentinel
Originally published February 6, 2005

ORLANDO, Fla. -- In Philadelphia, where Jim Schooley grew up, there were four clubs for the deaf. They sponsored basketball and baseball teams. There were pool tables and dartboards. At Christmas, a deaf Santa gave presents to the children.

The clubs were the center of the deaf community, the portals through which the deaf became indoctrinated into deaf culture.

Throughout the nation, such clubs are on the decline. The younger deaf are eschewing the deaf clubs of their parents for the Internet, text-messaging and e-mail.

"There is a big fear we are going to lose deaf culture because of technology," said Rosanne Trapani, coordinator of Deaf & Hard of Hearing Services at Valencia Community College in Orlando.

Those who consider themselves part of the deaf culture use American Sign Language as their primary means of communication.

Based on national studies of the deaf who are proficient in sign language, an estimated 38,400 deaf people live in Florida.

About a fifth of those, 7,300, live in central Florida, but at the Orlando Club for the Deaf, which has been around since 1949, membership is down to fewer than 30.

Efforts to expand the club's membership have been futile.

"We tried for the last three years to pull the youth in here, but when they see the old people, it's not their thing. They can't relate," said club historian Tim Wata, a 50-year-old Lockheed Martin Corp. engineer.

Schooley blames it on technology. Televisions come with closed-caption devices. Hollywood movies can be ordered with "open caption" subtitles. There is e-mail, and there are Internet chat rooms for the deaf. A hand-held text-messaging device is popular.

A new system called video relay allows a deaf person to communicate visually with another deaf person or interpreter through a TV set.

"Most of them stay home, just like the hearing people," said Schooley, 70, who worked in graphic arts.

Lost to the new technologies of e-mail and text-messaging are the emotions and inflections of deaf communication.

To watch two deaf people communicate is to witness pantomime, improvisation and hand signals. Eyes narrow. Shoulders shrug. Eyebrows rise. Heads shake.

The traditions, customs and language of the deaf community are all visual. American Sign Language, formalized in 1817, is as much about body language and facial expressions as it is hand gestures.

The essence of deaf culture remains face-to-face interaction. But the way that interaction takes place is changing.

Instead of one club that is all things to all deaf people, the deaf community in Orlando is divided into several groups.

For some, it's the deaf bowling league and softball teams. For others, it's the coffee chats at Starbucks and the silent dinners in the mall food courts. For others, it's the deaf church ministries.

The desire to be with other deaf people is often served by events for the deaf such as a performance by deaf poet Peter Cook; a revival by deaf evangelist Ronnie Rice; the annual Deaf Fest, which last year drew 1,200 deaf people to the Central Florida Fairgrounds; or Deaf Awareness Day, set for July.

Events and activities have replaced club membership in satisfying the overriding desire among the deaf to be with other deaf people -- the sense of belonging that comes from being with people with a shared understanding.

"Many of the deaf are so isolated. They can't talk to everybody, so if they meet another deaf person, they are so hungry for conversation," said Debra Jenkins, a deaf training specialist at the Center for Independent Living in Winter Park, Fla.

Despite the communication technologies available to the deaf, direct contact holds the community together.

"The unifying characteristic is deafness," Trapani said. "When they get together, it's an all-night event. Time means nothing."

After every silent dinner or deaf club meeting or a night of friends getting together for cards, there is a reluctance to leave the community of the deaf for the world of the hearing.

"The deaf never leave," said Debbie Bennett, president of the Orlando Club for the Deaf. "They stay and stay and stay. It's the deaf way."

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.