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July 3, 2005

Convention helps empower the deaf

From: Contra Costa Times - CA,USA - Jul 3, 2005

By Jackie Burrell

-- Jackie Burrell

The room is silent, save for the occasional burst of laughter and the gentle whiffling of air as hands fly and fingers flutter in bursts of conversation.

It's a diverse crowd, but these pageant queens, filmmakers, business types and average Joes share one characteristic. They are all deaf or hard of hearing.

The 47th biennial conference of the California Association for the Deaf is in progress in Walnut Creek this weekend. There are lectures on legal rights and advocacy, and workshops on the latest adaptive technology. There are tournaments, a Miss Deaf California pageant and even Russian mimes.

"The purpose is to empower, to bring awareness, to build self-esteem," said Margo Cienik, a Southern California high school teacher and former Miss Deaf America who serves on the association board.

Twenty years after winning that tiara, Cienik is still stunning. She's also a powerful advocate for the rights of deaf children and the importance of teaching American Sign Language at an early age.

"American Sign Language was created in 1817. Before that, no deaf were taught," said Cienik. "They were sent to asylums."

But sign language is not without controversy. Some educators and parents fear that children who learn American Sign Language first may never learn to speak or read English. They may feel comfortable in the deaf community, but may not be able to mainstream.

This is not an either/or question, Cienik insists. Children need to feel comfortable everywhere, and that starts with communication. Start with sign, expand to English.

"We believe in giving children a language they can understand," Cienik said. "Parents want children to be 'normal.' Accept (deafness), but say there's not going to be any limitation. Give them everything."

She paused, eyes glistening, "Signing was my first language."

The conference's serious issues were balanced with levity, though. There were tournaments, socials and the joyous exuberance of TOYS, a Russian deaf theater company that combines mime with rhythmic and gestural flourishes.

"There is no interpreter necessary," said artistic director Oleg Golovushkin. "We use music and motion and all the people, regardless of country, language or age, can understand it."

The Russian troupe performed Saturday night, but an afternoon workshop had mimes and audience members imitating Marcel Marceau's gliding walk and invisible rope routines. Company founder Alexander Filimonov improvised a comic Old West saloon scene with volunteer gunslingers, piano player and can-can dancers played by Miss Deaf California and two of the 2005 pageant competitors -- including Amanda Sortwell from Fremont's California School for the Deaf.

They won't be doing the can-can tonight, however. The Miss Deaf California pageant features the usual evening gown, interviews and talent competition, but it also includes a political platform section.

"There's a need for positive role models in the community," said reigning queen Shazia Siddiqi, whose 2003-2005 platform promoted health education in the deaf community. "We need to reach out to the younger generation and make a difference."

The UC Berkeley graduate received her master's degree in public health from Dartmouth and plans to trade in her tiara for a stethoscope. She is headed for medical school.

"I believe you plant a seed," said Cienik, recalling her own tiara days. "But you never know what flourishes."

Actually, Cienik does know. One of her outreach events as a national representative was at a Girl Scouts anniversary celebration. An 8-year-old girl peppered her with awestruck questions that day. She ran into the same girl two years ago, and Trishmonisha Blagdon had taken her message to heart.

Blagdon graduated from UCLA, launched her own video company and in 2003, she was runner-up in the Miss Deaf California pageant. Blagdon's video company is filming tonight's pageant.


California has 90,000 profoundly deaf residents and 1 million more who are hearing impaired. Nationally, 400,000 are profoundly deaf; 20 million are hearing impaired

-- Jackie Burrell

Reporter Jackie Burrell covers education. Contact her at 925-977-8568 or

© 2005 and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.