Monday, August 31, 2009

ASL poet honored for being a deaf community trailblazer

From The Sun Post:

MANTECA, Calif. — Ella Mae Lentz (pictured) has only lived in Manteca a few months, but in addition to bringing furniture to fill a house purchased in May, she brought to town a driven soul.

Lentz, a leader in the deaf community, has fused English poetry with American Sign Language, co-authored eight books (four teachers’ guides and four student workbooks), helped found the Deafhood Foundation and champions its mission statement: “Dedicated to achieving economic and social justice for all deaf people.”

The group Purple Communications honored Lentz last weekend in San Ramon as one of 10 finalists for its Dream Bigger campaign, according to a news release. Purple Communications, based in Novato, is a provider of various interpreting services, and Dream Bigger “recognizes trailblazers in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.”

Lentz received $1,000 toward the charity of her choice — the Deafhood Foundation, in this case — and if she’s named trailblazer of the year in October in Washington, D.C., she’ll receive $10,000 toward a charity and a vacation. Online voting will determine the winner.

“Wow! Well, it’s a huge honor. There were 10 people all over the country, so it’s a very nice honor,” she said through an interpreter during a phone interview using Video Relay Service, in which a deaf person taps into an interpreter and carries on a video conference with the person on the other end of the phone. “But, more importantly for me, they’re giving me money to donate to the charity of my choice, and that’s thrilling for me, because I’m involved with a new organization, a foundation, so what I’m hoping is for people, when they vote, to get the $10,000.”

Lentz was born deaf, and others in her family are deaf as well. She said getting involved was a process. She noticed that deaf people don’t need help — they just depend more on vision.

“Deafhood reflects the true definition of being deaf, from deaf people’s side, from our real lives and life experiences to the world at large,” Lentz said. “People aren’t familiar with deaf people and sign language. … That’s tragic. That’s sad, but in our experience, we have our language, we have our lives, we have full access to the community and businesses and jobs. We have our families, we have our homes and everything.

“We do experience some oppression that we have to deal with and overcome, as any disability group does in the world. But Deafhood helps clarify some of those misunderstandings and those struggles.”

A child of the ’60s in the Bay Area, Lentz said she became “really fascinated” with English poetry in classes at the California School for the Deaf in Berkeley. She found herself further fascinated while taking classes in ASL, English poetry and translations at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.

“I didn’t realize ASL was a language of its own,” Lentz said. “I started realizing I was bilingual. I realized I was not that bad at English. That was a new way of thinking for me.”

Lentz began working for a sign-language research laboratory and creating sign-language poetry.

“I felt poetry helped give credit to sign language,” she said. “People start to see it’s a real language. You can create with it, play with it, perform. It was a revolutionary way of thinking at the time.”

Lentz taught more than 30 years total, including ASL for 17 years at Berkeley City College. She noted that ASL has been around for several hundred years, but because of discrimination against deaf people — known as “audism” — children in particular “miss out.”

“Every human person has a right to a language that is in their natural mode, that’s most accessible to them,” she said. “Deaf children unfortunately are delayed in learning languages. Those kids are very isolated.”

As a co-founder of Deafhood, which is based in Newark, Lentz and the crew of 15 seek social and economic justice and political power for deaf people. She said four important points would help Deafhood reach its goal: Networking, education, activism and research.

While Lentz still spends much of her time in the South Bay “for work, meetings and the like,” her new hometown includes a daughter and three grandchildren.

“They like it,” Lentz said. “It’s still new to me, the town. It’s a very nice, sweet little town.”