IM this article to a friend!

April 4, 2005

Deaf pride: spreading the word

From: Lompoc Record - Lompoc,CA,USA - Apr 4, 2005

By Tammy Cravit - Record Correspondent

4/4/05 Watching Beth Houston communicate is very much like watching a dance, in three dimensions. Words and ideas roll from her hands, and flow from her facial expressions and the movements of her body. That's because Houston is deaf.

An estimated 800,000 hearing-impaired people live in the United States. According to a 2004 Census Bureau estimate, more than a dozen deaf people live in the Lompoc and Santa Ynez valleys, and more than 80 call Santa Maria home.

Deaf since birth, Houston, 38, grew up in a culture that views deafness as a disability, something to be ashamed of and repaired when possible. Though awareness of deafness has increased in recent years, discrimination against the deaf is still common.

Houston is trying to teach people about deafness, to increase understanding end discrimination.

Along with Jeannie Bulgin, a deaf woman from Grover Beach, Houston recently started the Deaf Pride Club of the Central Coast. With the help of the Independent Living Resource Center in Santa Maria, where Houston volunteers, they are promoting deaf pride and deaf culture.

"We're trying to improve deaf needs," Houston said. "We try to set up events for the deaf."

Houston, who essentially has no hearing, is considered profoundly deaf. Audiologists classify deafness as mild, moderate, severe, or profound, which includes those who can hear sounds only at a level of above 95 decibels, or who cannot hear any sound. Standing next to a jet engine produces a sound of about 120 decibels.

"Some hearing people respect me," she said, speaking through an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. "Some people have no respect, they discriminate ... especially in jobs."

Houston remembers being teased as a child because of her deafness, and because she uses sign language to communicate. Nearly three decades later, the pain is naked on her face when she recalls that experience.

"My heart was crushed," she said, using a sign that depicted her grief more clearly than any words. "But I didn't say anything, and just walked away."

In recent years, cochlear implants have given some deaf individuals the ability to hear. Cochlear implants are surgically implanted behind the ear and use microscopic electrodes to directly stimulate the auditory nerve. The implants can cost as much $40,000, including rehabilitative therapy.

The decision to have cochlear implants is an intensely personal one. One factor that must be considered is the specific medical cause of an individual's deafness. Some people, for example, have nonfunctioning auditory nerves; for them, a cochlear implant provides no benefit.

But there's also a cultural component to be considered. Some deaf individuals feel that technology such as cochlear implants reinforces the belief that deafness is merely a pathology to be cured, rather than a rich culture to be celebrated and embraced. Others fear that widespread acceptance of cochlear implants will mean the extinction of deaf culture. The deaf community continues to debate and wrestle with these issues.

Houston spent a short time at the California School for the Deaf in Riverside, one of two residential schools for the deaf in California. But most of her education took place in mainstream schools, where keeping up with what was being said was a constant struggle.

Now, as an adult, she has returned to school. She's a full-time student at Allan Hancock College, working toward an associate's degree in the computer field. She volunteers at the Independent Living Resource Center, helping provide services to deaf clients. And, like many deaf people, she struggles to communicate in a culture where deafness is not well understood or accommodated.

"For example, you can't (really) get emergency services without an interpreter," she said. Notwithstanding the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires that police, medical personnel and others provide interpreters, Houston said that facilitating communication remains a struggle. "It's hard to get through," she said.

In spite of - or perhaps in part because of - these challenges, Houston and many other deaf individuals take great pride in their identities as deaf. For those who identify as culturally deaf, they share a rich tapestry of shared experience woven by a common language - American Sign Language. And, not surprisingly, they take a great deal of pride in that culture.

"Deaf people can do anything," Houston said. "(People) should not look down on us being deaf. We're proud, and we want to prove it."

Houston is one of those spearheading the Deaf Pride Club of the Central Coast to do just that.

The first of the group's events, a gathering at Starbucks in Santa Maria, drew more than 50 people. "That was a good start," Houston said. "We will work on more events."

Houston said anyone who's interested in learning about deaf culture, or who wants a chance to learn or practice ASL is welcome. "They don't have to feel shy," she said. "Just come and look around. Everyone is welcome."

To learn more about the Deaf Pride Club, visit the group's Web site,

Correspondent Tammy Cravit can be contacted at

© Copyright 2001 Pulitzer Central Coast Newspapers. All Rights Reserved.