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April 11, 2005

Area native takes dream out West

From: Flint Journal, MI - Apr 11, 2005

Deaf man plans to build town where sign language is main communication

Monday, April 11, 2005
By Matt Bach • 810.766.6330

Laurent, S.D.
What it is: A town that Flint-area native Marvin T. Miller is hoping to build in South Dakota for deaf and hard-of-hearing people and their families.
Details: Visit

The dream to build what may become the world's first town for the deaf was born in the Flint area.

Since his boyhood days in New Lothrop and Flushing and as a student at the Michigan School for the Deaf in Flint, Marvin T. Miller has dreamed about one thing - having a town where American Sign Language, not English, is the primary language.

About three years ago, Miller, 33, moved his family from their home in Clio to southeastern South Dakota to follow that dream. Miller, his wife, Jennifer, and their four children, ages 21 months to 7, are all deaf.

Land has been reserved, architectural plans have been drawn and nearly 97 families have signed up. The goal is to start construction by the fall or sooner, Miller said through an interpreter from his Salem, S.D., office.

"I've always known this is exactly what the world needs - the first fully integrated town serving the needs of hearing and the deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals," Miller said.

Miller believes any group - religious and ethnic, as well as those with disabilities - wants to have a sense of self and community and wants to feel empowered to make changes that will benefit its group.

"For so many years, our community has felt powerless," Miller said. "We had no power over the fate of deaf schools or what happens to our children's education. All those decisions were made on the state or local level by people who were not deaf or hard of hearing."

The town is to be called Laurent, after Laurent Clerc, a French educator of the deaf from the 1800s.

It would even have an ordinance requiring sign language and direct communication in businesses, services and city government. People would not be required to know sign language before they buy a home in Laurent, but would be encouraged to learn it once they move in.

Miller's dream got worldwide attention last month after The New York Times wrote about Laurent.

Miller said a recent Google search on the Internet showed the article was published in 170 newspapers, including The Flint Journal, throughout the world.

He has had requests for interviews from journalists in England, Russia, Germany and Italy. An article is supposed to appear in People magazine. The CBS show "60 Minutes" has called, expressing an interest in doing an in-depth story about Laurent.

"It's been unbelievable," Miller said. "We weren't looking for it. My concern, of course, is getting the town built. We want to focus on that and not on public relations."

Miller wants a town where his children can grow up seeing deaf role models, such as a deaf mayor, deaf school board members and even a deaf state representative or senator.

He's dreamed of a town with a McDonald's, grocery store and barber shop where patrons speak with their hands to workers who can understand them.

Miller said his experiences growing up in the Flint area and attending MSD in Flint through the eighth grade were positive, and he loves his hometown. But he also quickly realized that deaf and hard-of-hearing people were limited in what they could do in a hearing-dominated world that doesn't know sign language.

He wanted to build his town in Michigan, but realized it would be too difficult to make a difference in a state with a population of 10 million.

He chose rural southeast South Dakota, which has a statewide population of 750,000, with the intent of building a deaf-friendly community large enough to get political representation.

He said that if Laurent gets 2,000 people, it may be able to get a seat in the state Legislature in South Dakota, but would be unable to do so in Michigan.

"Today, how many elected deaf people do you think there are in the nation?" Miller asked. "The answer is one. There's one local school board member in Maryland."

Miller attended MSD in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the school's enrollment experienced a steady decline.

"The deaf kids are totally scattered throughout the state, and they're not developing a healthy sense of self-identification," Miller said. "They are growing up around people who are hearing, and they're thinking, 'I'm deaf, I'm different, something is wrong with me.' "

Miller transferred from MSD to the Model Secondary School for the Deaf in Washington, D.C., for his high school years. After attending Galludet University for the deaf in Washington, D.C., for two years, he returned to Michigan and started two newspapers focusing on deaf issues - the Deaf Michigander and the Deaf Nation.

In Salem, S.D., he's formed a business, The Laurent Co., devoted to building Laurent, which would be three miles from Salem.

Now that his town is starting to take shape, it's renewed a longtime debate over how society should treat the deaf and hard of hearing.

Some people, particularly advocates of technologies that help deaf people use spoken language, wonder whether such a town would merely isolate and exclude the deaf more than ever.

"I understand the desire to be around people like ourselves, and I don't have a problem with that, but I don't think it's very wise. This is a little bit of circling-the-wagons mentality, if you ask me," said Todd Houston, executive director of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Washington.

Miller counters, saying no one would be excluded from his town and that hearing people would be just as welcome as the deaf and hard of hearing. He also said tourists would be welcome.

"We are not building a town for deaf people," said M.E. Barwacz, Miller's mother-in-law and his business partner in creating Laurent. "We are building a town for sign-language users. And one of the biggest groups we expect to have here is hearing parents with deaf children."

Barwacz, who intends to live in Laurent, is not deaf. She has two daughters, one deaf and one not, and eight grandchildren, four of them deaf.

Miller and Barwacz have revealed little about the costs and their plans for financing Laurent. They say they are using family money, as well as some from a group of "angel investors," led by a man with a deaf daughter who wishes to remain anonymous.

Swartz Creek residents Stevie and Mark Naeyaert have known Miller and his family for years and visited him recently in South Dakota. They love the idea for Laurent, but don't think they'll move out there. Both are deaf, as is there 4-year-old son, Tyler, a student at MSD.

"We would love to move there, but I don't see us actually doing it now," Stevie Naeyaert said in an e-mail response to Flint Journal questions. "Maybe in a few years. Honestly we're big chickens - not brave enough to leave our families and jobs here in Michigan and starting new. It would be a dream to move there."

Naeyaert is the interpreter training program coordinator at Mott Community College, and her husband works at the city of Flint Water Plant and paints signs as a second job.

Naeyaert said the possibilities and opportunities in Laurent would be endless for her son, but they're limited now.

"In Laurent, I could sign him up for AYSO, T-Ball, Boy Scouts, gymnastics and not have to worry about how he'll be able to communicate with his coach and teammates," Naeyaert said.

"We could watch community plays anytime we want. Here at The Whiting Auditorium, I have to request an interpreter two weeks in advance, and the one interpreter stands on left of the stage signing dialogue for the whole play.

"Try enjoying plays that way. We don't bother going. In Laurent, there'll be a community theater where plays are done entirely in sign language."


Information from The New York Times is included in this article.

© 2005 Flint Journal.

Copyright 2005 Michigan Live. All Rights Reserved.