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DeafNation Expo is a trade show and social event -- it's just not loud

'The deaf can do anything except hear,' says Joel Barish, co-founder of the expo, which was held Saturday in Pomona.

May 01, 2010|By Corina Knoll, Los Angeles Times

If excitement were measured in decibels, then Saturday's events in Building 7 of Pomona's Fairplex fell flat. Despite thousands of people in attendance, the only discernible noise in the giant warehouse was the steady hum of an air pump attached to the children's bounce house.

But things are not as they sound at DeafNation Expo, a touring trade show. What may seem like a mild affair to those with hearing is blasting in full color for the hearing impaired.

Fingers flashed furiously as families communicated in American Sign Language. Friends tapped one another's shoulders and engaged in animated conversations, many using the event as a reunion. Vendors made exaggerated facial expressions as they hawked electronic devices and exotic deaf cruises, beauty supplies and bibles.

Only visitors with hearing felt the absence of music on the overhead sound system or the lack of microphones on stage.

Some patrons lingered over a modest display of antique teletypewriters and black-and-white photos of James C. Marsters, the Pasadena orthodontist who first conceived the idea of converting audio tones into typed messages. Others tried on T-shirts that read "Got ASL?" and perused the rows of books and DVDs, leaving their names and videophone numbers on sign-up sheets.

At one booth, salesman Richard Glasgow, 60, showed off a line of products that included text-telephone devices, vibrating alarm clocks and a portable gadget that flashes when someone knocks at the door. He and his wife, Lydia, are both deaf and work as dealers for Krown Manufacturing, which specializes in merchandise for the hearing impaired.

The Moreno Valley couple discovered the company at a DeafNation Expo three years ago and have enjoyed working in a business that caters to the deaf lifestyle. Richard Glasgow believes that one of their items, a fire alarm outfitted with strobe lights, could have saved the two deaf women from his hometown who died in 2007 after their mobile home caught fire.

"My heart was broken," he recalled. "That's why I sell these products."

Uniting deaf vendors with people who could use their goods was exactly what brothers Joel and Jed Barish had in mind when they founded the expo in 2003. Both born deaf, they wanted to offer others a comfortable place to convene.

"There is a need to empower deaf people and business owners and improve our life standard," Joel Barish, 41, wrote on a notepad. (He generally refuses to use a translator, saying it would be like having a dog following him around.)

"I'm independent," he wrote. "The deaf can do anything except hear."

Raised in San Jose, Barish travels around the world interviewing deaf people for "No Barriers," a program posted on the DeafNation website. In Kuala Lumpur he talks to a group of deaf drummers; in Brussels he speaks with Adam Kosa, the first deaf member of the European parliament.

About a dozen expos are held each year across the United States, and Barish expects 50,000 attendees at the international convention scheduled for July 24-26 in Las Vegas.

Mara Reyes, 27, said she'll be there, because having access to the deaf community is necessary for the success of her clothing line, By Mara.

As customers thumbed through her rack of hoodies, T-shirts and shorts that read "handshapes" and "one love," Reyes beamed.

"I can't imagine what it would be like if they didn't have this expo," she said. "Maybe all of this wouldn't have happened for me."

As an infant in the Philippines, Reyes contracted a viral illness that left her hearing severely damaged. Her family moved to Los Angeles, where there were more educational opportunities for the deaf.

While studying fashion design and production at Cal State Northridge, Reyes was instructed to create a logo for a future business. She came up with a stylized version of the sign language symbol for "love." Encouraged by friends and family members, she began screen-printing the logo on clothing and selling it at deaf exhibitions and online. So far, she hasn't attained quite enough success to quit her job as a sales associate at H&M, where it can be difficult to communicate with customers.

"In the hearing world, I miss the deaf world," she said. "I set up my own business so I could work in both."

For many visitors, the event was a chance to support retailers like Reyes.

"I want to help deaf-owned businesses," Vanessa Delaunay of Claremont said as she bought a gift box of lotion and soap at a booth operated by the Miss Deaf International pageant. "These expos help our lives move on. It's like our own shopping center and a chance to socialize with friends. We can be ourselves."

Delaunay, 22, brought along her 8-month-old daughter. "I want her to get used to and understand deaf culture," she said. "She's hearing, but she's going to learn sign language. I want her to understand where I'm coming from."

By midafternoon, as people continued to line up to enter the free event, Barish offered his take on the day so far: Two thumbs up.

corina.knoll@latimes.com

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