Article Teenagers discuss 'deafhood' - Deaf Studies Division in the News


Teenagers discuss 'deafhood'

Northwest: Students from Washington, Oregon not defined by lack of hearing

By Debby Abe.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009-Reprinted from The News Tribune.

Students sitting in chairs at the conference.Tessa Ottley and Celedonio Gasper, foreground from left, from Oregon School for the Deaf, were among the students traveling the furthest to attend Deafhood Youth Northwest, a day-long, free workshop held at Mt. Tahoma High School, for youth for Washington and Oregon, May 19, 2009. Colleen Thayer, background left, is a teacher from OSD. -Photo by Janet Jensen, The News Tribune.

The Mount Tahoma High School auditorium sparked with the energy of flying fingers, expressive hands and knowledgeable nods Tuesday.

Deaf teens and their teachers from throughout Washington and Oregon gathered at the South Tacoma high school to consider what it means to be part of "deafhood."

"Instead of looking at what deaf people can't do, we need to look at ourselves as people who are visual, and who have a community," deaf poet and educator Ella Mae Lentz signed through an interpreter. "We need to look at ourselves in a very positive view to confirm who we are as deaf individuals."

Lentz and Genie Gertz, dean of the Deaf Studies Division and Special Studies at Ohlone College in Fremont, Calif., have led workshops for deaf adults around the country since 2005. Deafhood Youth Northwest on Tuesday at Mount Tahoma was their first presentation tailored to teenagers.

The event drew students, teachers and interpreters from 12 school districts in Washington. The Washington State School for the Deaf in Vancouver sent 41 students, and 13 youths from the Oregon School for Deaf left Salem at 4:30 a.m. to attend.

Mount Tahoma is home to Tacoma's deaf and hard-of-hearing program for high school students. Depending on individual needs, the program's 25 students typically take mainstream classes with help from the school's seven interpreters, plus classes taught in sign language by the program's three instructors.

Paul Bert, Tacoma's sign language interpreter coordinator, said the conference gave teens a chance to learn about the growing concept of deafhood, coined by author Paddy Ladd in 2003.

Like the words "sisterhood" or "parenthood," the term reflects deaf peoples' knowledge, history and positive view of themselves, Lentz and Gertz said.

The workshop covered the origins of American Sign Language, signing etiquette, the oppression of deaf people and what it means to be in a community of deaf people. Lentz and Gertz signed their talk, while an onstage interpreter signed student responses for the audience to view. Hearing people listened to simultaneous interpretation of the discussion via radio-transmitter headsets.

At one point, Lentz challenged the teens to come up with a definition of "deaf" that wasn't based on the ability to hear.

"You write back and forth," signed one teen.

"I receive language visually," signed another youth.

"I use my pager to communicate with my friends," a girl signed.

"You don't have to hear to be wholly functioning people," Lentz signed. "You have your own technology. It doesn't mean 'I just can't hear.' It means I have real visual acuity."

"We are people of the eye," Gertz signed.

Mount Tahoma senior Kristina Kotilevskaya admired the presenters' clear signs, their expressions and emotions.

"I feel inspired by this event," she said through an interpreter. "All day, I've really fallen in love with it."

She also was delighted to see a sign language interpreter from Russia. Kristina came to the United States seven years ago from Ukraine, which uses a different sign language. She plans to study crime scene investigation at Pierce College.

Mount Tahoma sophomore Courtney White enjoyed the workshop and its message of self-esteem. She doesn't regard being deaf as a problem.

"There's nothing interfering with what I want to do," said Courtney, who wants to study journalism in college. "I just can't hear."

Debby Abe: 253-597-8694