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February 3, 2005

The many sounds of silence

From: Danvers Herald, MA - Jan 3, 2005

By William Henderson/
Thursday, February 3, 2005

At the New England Homes for the Deaf, residents are always talking, even if you can't hear them. Being deaf is not the same thing as being quiet, says Ida "Mama" Vernon, one of the home's residents.

"I just never shut up," Vernon says, with the help of a translator who interprets her signing. "I used to be afraid that if I shut up, I'd forget how to speak. It's either use it or lose it, you know?"

With her shock of snow white hair, her signature string of pearls and her distinctive hearty laugh, Vernon is hard to miss - which is just how she likes it.

Vernon is part of a community of people who make their home in the as-yet-unnamed new facility, which opened last year on land overlooking the Waters River. There's always someone up for a chat or a game of cards.

Vernon lost her hearing at the age of 8, after she contracted scarlet fever.

She laughs at the idea of having "lost" her hearing, as if it were something she might have left behind on a bus. She just had to learn a new way to hear.

"When you're young, you blame everybody for your problems. You look for the reasons for this or that," she says. "But, for me, going deaf helped me bring people together. Little by little, your mind wakes up and you think, 'Oh yeah, that's why I'm deaf.'"

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, she spends part of the day watching television in her room, a single, which she likes, and part of the day exercising with friends. She moved from her daughter's New Hampshire home last year to live in the New England Homes for the Deaf new facility, where she is part of a community. Vernon admits she resisted the move until the new facility opened.

Growing up, Vernon had big plans. She wanted to go to college, travel around the world and master American Sign Language. She married instead, putting her dreams on hold.

"It was like I put them up on a shelf somewhere. And when I had the time and could go back to it, all I had to do was go that shelf, dust off the dream and start doing it," she says.

After raising six children, 14 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, she enrolled at Gallaudet College, outside of Washington, D.C., one of only two colleges in the country specifically for the deaf. She studied social services, and after graduating, when she was 67, she traveled the world, teaching people the importance of communication, even silent communication.

The hearing, says Vernon, now 70, are always in a hurry.

"They rush rush, rush and end up where they want to get early, but are forced to wait. The deaf, on the other hand, take their time," she says. "They'll get where they need to get, but at their own speed."

It's much the same with teaching sign language, she says. She often teaches new residents how to sign, starting with simple words like child, ball and drink.

"But I tell them, give me time," Vernon says. "I'll have you speaking in whole sentences before you know it."

Lonely no more

Vernon's friend, Mary Lemoie, makes it clear there's nowhere else she'd rather be than at the New England Homes for the Deaf. She's lived there for 10 years, first in the Thompson House, the home's affiliated independent-living apartment residence, then in the old building and now in its new one.

She's watched technology catch up with a deaf person's specific needs, from flashing lights that indicate visitors are at her front door to a bed that shakes if the fire alarm sounds. She watches her afternoon soaps and reads the closed captioning at the bottom of the screen.

"Being deaf is hard," she says. "I wish I could be hearing. I used to have hearing aides, but they don't work for me anymore. Being here," she pauses, giving the translator time to catch up, "being here is the best thing about being deaf."

She wears several silver and gold rings on her fingers, which she twists as she watches someone sign to her. She responds quickly, speeding through her thoughts before she can forget them. She occasionally turns to the interpreter and, hiding her hands from the interviewer, asks if she's doing OK. The interpreter translates this and laughs, signing back, "Mary, you're always OK."

Unlike Vernon, Lemoie was born deaf. Her parents immigrated to America just before she was born and didn't speak much English, let alone sign language. Her childhood friends learned some rudimentary signing skills, but communication was limited.

Now, at the Homes for the Deaf, there is no shortage of people with whom she can communicate. Employees are required to know sign language before they are hired or must learn it soon after.

Before saying goodbye, she reiterates that there's nowhere else she'd rather be.

"You make it clear that I love it here, OK?"

A place to call home

Down the hall from Mary Lemoie lives Theodore Valentine, who was 15 months old when he became deaf, because of an infected appendix. Hearing aides helped for a while, he says, and even now, if someone speaks loudly enough he can kind of hear the vibrations of their words. He doesn't read lips all that well, mostly he says because hearing people tend to talk so fast.

In 2003, he moved from his New Hampshire apartment to the New England Homes for the Deaf after visiting and deciding he wanted to spend more time around deaf people.

"I didn't know a lot of people here at first," he says, with the help of a translator, "but I knew the building looked good, and I knew I wanted to live here." He said he often walks around the home's second floor, which is where he lives, and looks for conversations and games to join.

From the large bay window in his room, Valentine can see the Waters River. Unlike his old room at the home's former building - the mansion donated 80 years ago by the Hussey family - he has his own bathroom and can watch television until he's ready for lights out.

"I'm really happy to be here," he says, choosing his words carefully, the translator later notes. "It's nice to have friends to socialize with and a place like this to call home."

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