Wednesday’s rally was part of a national day of action for people with hearing disabilities.

By Rose Hoban

Advocacy rallies in front of the North Carolina State Legislative Building in Raleigh inevitably have the same elements: speakers, hand-lettered signs, instruction on what to say to lawmakers, chants, cheering. And the rally taking place on Wednesday morning had all those elements, except no one “spoke” a word.

The advocates gathered on the wet grass in front of the General Assembly were members of the deaf and hard of hearing community, and all the speeches, cheers and instructions were done in American Sign Language.

Students from the North Carolina School for the Deaf in Morganton were in Raleigh to meet with lawmakers, along with their social studies teacher, David Bird (left). Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“Access is key,” signed Lawson McNally to the gathered crowds. (All quotes are as translated by Kellie Stewart.)

“Social access is important, equal access, whether it’s going in to see a movie, going to the airport, there’s not enough information,” he said. “The world is not accessible, and North Carolina is very behind in providing accessibility for deaf people.

“And if we don’t speak up, everyone thinks that’s OK.”

The rally was one of dozens across the country at statehouse capitols as well as the U.S. Capitol, as part of a campaign by Deaf Grassroots Movement, a civil rights organization.

DGM has been pushing for several years to improve employment, health care and education access for people who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Sobering stats

Linda Nelson moved to North Carolina in 1994, and at that time the unemployment rate for deaf people was around 75 percent. Many of those people lived on Social Security Disability payments, which, in all practicality, means living in poverty.

“I was shocked; I couldn’t believe it,” Nelson said. “But I think it’s been fairly stable over the years; it’s about the same, even now.”

Malea Williams came to the legislature from Wilmington, where she works with the disAbility Resource Center. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Recent data from the U.S. Census shows that about 1.9 percent of people in the U.S. have a hearing disability; only 0.2 percent of people have severe hearing loss or deafness. And the employment rate for all those people is about 52 percent.

In North Carolina, about 2.2 percent of people, or about 130,600, have difficulty hearing and about 2,660 people with hearing disabilities survive on Social Security Disability benefits.

Deaf people with more education tend to get better jobs and salaries, according to a recent article published by researchers from Winston-Salem in a leading journal of deaf studies. However, the 224 people surveyed for the article said communication issues and employers’ lack of knowledge of what deaf people could do were significant barriers to getting and keeping a job.

And Nelson said getting deaf and hard of hearing children adequate education is a challenge with the state’s limited resources. One of the state’s three schools for the deaf was closed in 2000; and since 2011, the remaining two schools have faced almost annual budget cuts.

Medical issues

Lack of interpreters in hospitals and medical facilities is an issue that can profoundly affect care outcomes for people with hearing disabilities, said Nelson, who spent decades working in the Division of Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Nelson said now that she’s retired, she can criticize more freely. And one of her biggest criticism is over poor access to mental health services for people in the deaf community.

Linda Nelson worked with the state Division of Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing for close to two decades. She said it’s critical for deaf children and their families to get instruction in American Sign Language. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“Many deaf clients never get well because they don’t have access to quality counseling,” she said. “Counselors don’t know how to sign, they don’t hire interpreters, so deaf people don’t get better, only because they can’t communicate.”

She and McNally also criticized hospitals’ use of video-relay interpretation, which uses iPads to interpret instructions from a medical provider, rather than hospitals having in-person interpreters.

“It’s on a small iPad that we are having to watch. You’re in the hospital, doctors and nurses don’t know how to set it up properly,” Nelson said. “For example, one person told me about lying on a bed, the staff person was sticking [the iPad] above them in their face, holding it over their head, trying to hear. It was too close to their face; they couldn’t even see the screen.”

She admitted some people like it and that it saves health care facilities money, but said that patients should have some choice about whether to use technology or a human.

“If I want a live interpreter there, I should be able to have one,” Nelson said.

Language isolation

One of the biggest issues for people at the rally is access to education on how to communicate in a meaningful way.

Their communication is what sets this crowd apart.

As I walked up to the rally, a woman touched my arm, motioned to take my reporter’s notebook and wrote, “Can you hear him?” about the speaker, who was communicating in sign language.

When I shook my head no, she found me an interpreter who translated the entire rally and interviews.

Many of the signs carried by people at the Deaf Grassroots Movement rally dealt with employment and education access. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

But oftentimes, that interpretation is unavailable, leaving people with hearing disabilities unable to communicate.

Nelson said that lack can lead to profound isolation, something that’s particularly bad for seniors.

“They live alone and they have no access, they have no one they can speak with in sign language,” Nelson said.

And she said it’s worse for those in nursing homes with no sign language interpreters.

“They sit there all day by themselves waiting to die,” she said.

“There are so many sad stories about deaf people in that situation,” McNally added.

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