Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Group rallies in downtown St. Louis for deaf culture

From The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In the picture, Patti Durr (left) of Rochester, N.Y., and Ruthie Jordan of Denver were the sign language representatives for a group of deaf activists in downtown St. Louis.

ST. LOUIS - The march covered only eight blocks, but it was meant to carry a strong message that deafness is a cultural identity, not a disability.

"We have a culture," Ruthie Jordan, a leader of a group called Audism Free America, said through a sign language interpreter on Sunday. "We have a language — American Sign Language."

About 50 people gathered near City Hall on Sunday afternoon then walked eight blocks to the Marriott Hotel at Union Station, site of the annual Early Hearing Detection and Intervention Meeting. Nearly 1,000 representatives of local, state and federal programs to diagnose hearing loss among children are attending the meeting, which lasts through Tuesday.

But the walkers object to an emphasis on treatment of hearing loss. Among the participants was Shawn Elfrink, a St. Louis postal worker who said the EHDI meeting does more to promote screening of children for hearing problems and treatment rather than support their use of sign language.

She has two sons, one of whom is deaf. Elfrink, who also is deaf, said through an interpreter that she and her deaf son have encountered much resistance to the teaching of sign language.

Audism, as discrimination against deaf people is typically called, "is a very ugly mindset," she said.

Karl White, director of the National Center for Hearing Assessment and Management at Utah State University, said EHDI participants recognize deafness as a culture that "doesn't need to be fixed." But he said EHDI programs make sure that parents of deaf children know their options, which might include cochlear implants.

Controversy over cochlear implant surgery began soon after the devices became available in the 1980s. Early proponents included the National Institute of Health and the American Medical Association. On the other side were members of the deaf community, who did not consider deafness a disability.

White's center organizes the annual EHDI meeting.