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September 22, 2006

Leading the way for the deaf in Springfield

From: - Springfield,MO,USA - Sep 22, 2006

Awareness week is a step in the right direction for area's hearing impaired.

Michael A. Brothers

When Jane Ross moved to Springfield from her longtime home in Independence in 1988, she says there was very little in the way of culture or services for the deaf in the Ozarks.

"There was nothing here," Ross says frankly. "I mean nothing."

Ross, who was born deaf and now teaches American Sign Language at Missouri State University, lamented the lack of services such as phone relays and especially the absence of a cohesive, social deaf community.

She recalls a sense of isolation and "negative influence" the situation created.

But things have changed and are changing for the better all the time, say Ross and other members of the deaf community. The first Deaf Awareness Week in Springfield, which kicks off Saturday, is the latest example.

Sponsored and organized by the Deaf Awareness Group of Southwest Missouri, the week of events is designed to bring area deaf people together and to raise awareness about deafness in the community at large, says Linda Cheek, president of DAG.

DAG has organized softball games and social events and has helped bring open-captioned movies to Springfield. Those kinds of things may not seem like much to most people, but as Ross can attest, they are a big step in the right direction for people who are deaf in the Ozarks.

"Now things are really starting to grow," she says. "There's a much more positive feeling than before."

Ross and Cheek are just two of the many key players making that change a reality.

"We've all worked to this point," Ross says. "... It's a team effort."

DAG has been a major facilitator for the changes, says George Joslin, a local Baptist minister who didn't grow up deaf but has lost most of his hearing late in life.

"I know many people involved and applaud their efforts," Joslin said via e-mail. "They seem to have the support of the deaf community. It appears they have been able to bring together several different areas under one umbrella, and that is good."

Cheek says the main goals she and others are striving for are social interaction, increasing services and raising awareness among the hearing community.

She and her husband, Mike, have adopted three deaf children and a hearing sibling of one of those children. The couple also has five more children from previous marriages.

As parents, Linda says one of the most important things they can give their deaf children — Michael, 9; Alan, 13; and Sean, 17 — is an opportunity to see, meet and interact with other deaf children and adults.

They're no different than any other children in that they need positive examples and role models in life, Linda says.

Without it, misconceptions can persist. Cheek has known deaf children who think they will be able to hear when they grow up because they're often the only deaf person they know and are surrounded by hearing adults.

"We want to teach them to accept that and work with that," Cheek says.

Deaf adults, too, are often simply looking to spend some time together, Ross says.

"Being in a ... family-geared area like the Ozarks, it's really important that everyone has a place, everyone is involved and there isn't any isolation," says Kelly Story, a graduate student at MSU whose studies focus on deaf and hard of hearing education.

Increasing services for the deaf and raising awareness among the hearing community go hand-in-hand, Cheek and Ross say. Although some local professionals and emergency workers are learning American Sign Language (many of them in Ross' classes), there's still a great need for more interpreters to help bridge the gap for people in both communities. The need is especially great in schools, Cheek says.

"We need more people to come, help interpret and sign," says Ross, who also teaches ASL at Central Bible College. "(Demand) is really growing."

The public and families are invited to any of the Awareness Week events, especially the performance of J.J. Jones, who is a deaf mime from the Kansas City area.

"He tells stories, and you'll laugh your head off if you see him," says Ross, who's seen him before. "It's a cross- cultural thing."

© 2006 Springfield News-Leader.