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June 28, 2005

Laughter fills 'Silent lunch'

From: Richmond Times Dispatch, VA - Jun 28, 2005

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

In some situations, it's acceptable to talk while eating.

Just ask the deaf men and women who visit the food court at The Shops at Willow Lawn on Wednesdays whether the practice is proper etiquette. With a nod of their knuckles, they'll respond with an emphatic "yes."

Sign language is the main form of communication at these weekly gatherings, called Silent Lunches.

For two hours, Richmond-area residents who are deaf can enjoy a meal and each other's company. The primary goal, however, is to serve as a resource for hearing individuals who are studying sign language in area high schools or colleges.

The lunches began about 15 years ago as an outgrowth of weekly Silent Dinners, started in 1989 by Bruce Sofinski, a longtime J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College sign-language professor.

The dinners and lunches "started out as living language labs for our students," Sofinski said. "They are still . . . for our students, but they have become an integral place for the deaf community to go and catch up with each other."

Some deaf individuals have attended for years.

"We really want to encourage hearing students learn- ing sign language how to socialize with deaf people," said Bill Duncan of Richmond, who is deaf and has numerous deaf relatives, including his parents. "We can learn from each other."

Hearing people who frequent the lunches to improve their skills often form lasting friendships with the deaf participants.

"Bill Duncan embraced me and welcomed me," said Sharon Pajka-West, who began attending the Silent Lunches years ago when she studied sign language at J. Sargeant Reynolds.

Pajka-West continued her studies and now leads Commonwealth Catholic Charities' Community Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. She facilitated interviews between The Times-Dispatch and deaf individuals during a recent Silent Lunch.

Jen Hohman, a professional sign-language interpreter, regularly attends the lunches with the deaf children she cares for.

"A lot of people are afraid to approach someone because they see them signing or see the hearing aids," Hohman said. "They just talk differently."

Hearing people who come to the lunches and dinners soon learn that deaf people don't want to be called "hearing impaired."

That term defines people who have partial or significant hearing loss, they say. Deaf people cannot hear at all.

For the most part, deaf individuals are comfortable with their inability to hear and are proud to communicate by signing.

"It's a language like Spanish or English or any other language,' said Henrico County resident Lee Painter, who is not deaf but has significant hearing loss and considers himself part of the deaf community. "It is a beautiful language."

Those who frequent the Silent Lunches discover that, just as in the hearing community, deaf people enjoy sports, movies and music, which they listen to by feeling vibrations and beats. Deaf people drive, hold jobs and tell jokes, just like anyone else.

"And just like the majority culture, sometimes not very good jokes," Pajka-West said and laughed.

During a recent lunch, Duncan's hands and fingers moved at seemingly warp speed, as subconsciously as if he were breathing. He shared, through Pajka-West, that he's never been self-conscious about the inability to hear and doesn't consider it an impairment.

He said he enjoys educating others about the deaf community and sign language and often teaches sign language courses at J. Sargeant Reynolds and Virginia Union University.

With the technology available today, Duncan said, there's little that deaf people can't do.

A text telephone, or TTY, permits them to receive and make telephone calls. Video relay enables the deaf to watch someone sign through a computer monitor or television. Doorbell flashers and vibrating alarm clocks help them live independently.

When they aren't educating others, deaf individuals still make time to socialize. For some, it's at a weekly Thursday morning men's prayer meeting at Aunt Sarah's Pancake House on West Broad Street. Others attend churches with deaf ministries or deaf interpreters.

Regardless, most deaf people appreciate who they are "110 percent," Duncan said.

Pajka-West agreed: "They don't think of [deafness] as a disability. They want to be considered a cultural linguistic minority group."

Contact Stacy Hawkins Adams at (804) 649-6578 or

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