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Deaf Gain New Voice : Innovative Tools, Services Help Break Silence Barrier

May 05, 1988|DIANNE KLEIN | Times Staff Writer

The world went silent for Patricia Halloran more than 60 years ago, when she tumbled off a stairway inside her family's home in Tennant, Iowa.

She was just a toddler then and couldn't understand. Even the grown-ups, it seemed, were at a loss. No one could explain where the sounds went or why they would never come back. So Patricia, Tennant's only deaf resident, had to go it on her own.

She would point and drag people by the hand and occasionally stamp her feet to make herself understood. Her own understanding came only from what she saw. There were no jokes, no songs and no secret stories.

"I could see other people talk, and it made me mad," she says. "I would look real hard at their lips to see if I could understand, but I got very frustrated."

Patricia Halloran is now Patricia Luna, 62, and recently retired after working 26 years as a data processor at Hughes Aircraft. She and her husband, Frank, who is also deaf, live in Anaheim. They have three children and three grandchildren, all of whom can hear.

Today, the Lunas no longer have to drive across town just to leave a note, or speak to the hearing world exclusively through their children, or make up their own plots to accompany the flashing images on the television screen.

Technology, and sheer persistence, have changed that.

When they wish to communicate with their deaf friends, the Lunas can type their words into a Telecommunication Device for the Deaf, a compact computer known as a TDD that signals an incoming call by flashing lights.

Should they need to call a hearing person, they can dial a telephone relay service where volunteers translate their message to the person on the other end. Thanks to closed captions--subtitles projected on their television screen by a decoding device--they can understand most of the same programs and movies that the hearing world enjoys.

The Lunas, just two of the more than 130,000 hearing-impaired people in Orange County, sometimes marvel over how much easier their lives have become. They and other deaf people of their generation have charted the movement toward deaf equality with the changes in their own lives.

And lately, they say, things have been going well. Deaf people, even those without voices of their own, are being heard.

The most recent watershed for the deaf civil rights movement came only this March, when protesting students at Gallaudet University in Washington, the nation's only university specifically for the deaf, forced Elisabeth Ann Zinser to resign as university president.

Zinser, who is not deaf and does not know sign language, lasted only a week in the post. When I. King Jordan, a deaf man who was dean of the school's College of Arts and Sciences, was named to replace her, the students, and deaf people in general, greeted the news with jubilation.

Marlee Matlin, the deaf actress who won an Oscar last year for her performance in "Children of a Lesser God," also has given new visibility to the more than 21 million Americans who are hearing-impaired. During her appearance at the Academy Awards ceremony last month, she used sign language and her voice to introduce the nominees for best actor.

In Orange County, deaf people have formed several service and recreational clubs, and, in conjunction with Holy Family Cathedral in Orange, are in the process of creating an advocacy group for the deaf. Within the public school system, deaf children are provided with sign language interpreters and special educational settings geared toward integrating them into the hearing world.

Several employers are providing sign language interpreters for their deaf employees. Hearing people are enrolling in classes to learn sign language. In cooperation with several organizations for the deaf, the Sign Language Club at Mission Viejo's Saddleback College recently presented "The Quiet Zone Theater," a variety show performed entirely in American Sign Language (of the numerous sign languages, ASL is the most dominant in this country) with vocal interpreters.

And the month of May, nationwide, is Deaf Awareness Month.

But all of this, deaf people say, is not to imply a struggle overcome. Discrimination and ignorance about the deaf abound. Many of the technological advances that have so enriched the lives of the hearing-impaired are linked to the caprices of politicians who control state and federal purse strings.

Yet, overall, the story of deafness in America, and Orange County in particular, is one of progress and hope. It is a story easily told by the participants themselves. All you need to do is listen with your eyes.

Patricia Luna was 6 years old when her parents led her into that classroom filled with children gesturing wildly with their hands.

At the time, she says, she didn't know that this was to mark the beginning of her formal education. Her parents, both of whom had normal hearing, had no way of letting her know.

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