This spring quarter at North Seattle Community College (NSCC), about a dozen students are enrolled in William Seago’s Level 3 American Sign Language (ASL) course. The class is silent. Seago instructs his students using ASL and writing vocabulary on the whiteboard, along with handout practice worksheets. The two-hour, semi-weekly, evening class immerses students into the world of communication in deaf culture.
“Teaching ASL in schools has many positive impacts,” said Seago, who is deaf. “It introduces a number of people who are now aware of deaf culture and the deaf community. And, of course, many more people can communicate with us.”
More than 180,000 deaf or hard-of-hearing people live in the Greater Seattle area, and with the high number of high schools and colleges offering ASL, an assortment of deaf-friendly businesses and the variety of interpreting services for the deaf, Seattle is reportedly deaf-friendly.
“One thing that sets Seattle a part as a deaf-friendly city is it’s what I call an ‘intellectual city’: People are individualistic, very open-minded and, for the most part, liberal,” Seago said. “It’s different from the East Coast, where there is a much larger deaf-people population, but people tend to be congregating types.”
Approximately four weeks ago, the Seattle deaf and hard-of-hearing community gained another resource with the launch of DeafREVIEW.com, an on-line service that allows users to rate businesses and customer-service venues according to their deaf-friendliness. Like Yelp! or City Search, users give stars and blurbs to businesses to inform future patrons.
“Deaf or hard-of-hearing people are very happy to give shining reviews on businesses that are deaf-friendly, and they likely to tell their friends about them,” said Melissa “echo” Greenlee, CEO of DeafREVIEW.com.
The reviews include all service providers, including banks, doctors, lawyers, restaurants, movie theaters and coffee houses. The website has more than 60 users so far, comprised of deaf and hard-of-hearing people and their allies. More than 40 venues have been reviewed.
Greenlee projects that more than 100 businesses will be reviewed by June.
“Something as easy as having a positive attitude or making eye contact can do wonders in our experience as deaf consumers,” she said. “Being told that your doctor won't provide a sign-language interpreter, or something as simple as an eye roll from a barista when we order our coffee, is something that we have to live with every day of our lives.
“Being deaf-friendly is just the right thing to do,” she said.
Annie Jordan, a first-year student in Seago’s class at NSCC, began taking ASL in high school for a foreign-language requirement. While she initially chose ASL simply as an alternative to French and Spanish, she fell in love with the language. Now, continuing her ASL studies in college, she plans on incorporating it into her future.
“I want to teach at a high school with a deaf program,” she said. “Not a school for the deaf, but with deaf kids.”
Jordan said that prior to studying ASL, she didn’t think about deafness often.
“We don’t see a lot of deaf people in everyday life — we are surrounded by hearing people,” she said. “I never had any interaction with deaf people before. This was the first time I thought about it.”
Greenlee, likewise, said that the increasing numbers of schools teaching ASL is beneficial for the deaf community.
“What I find very encouraging as a deaf person living in Seattle is the amount of people here that know ASL,” she said. “It's actually quite common for me to run into someone that signs, whether at the local Trader Joe’s or Starbucks.”
However, Greenlee noted that, within the last five years, Seattle lost two interpreting programs: the American Sign Language Interpreting School of Seattle, which closed its doors in 2007, and the Interpreters Training Program at Seattle Central Community College, which shut down in 2011 due to budget cuts.
Seattle also lacks an ASL deaf school where deaf children can learn in their native language.
“The closest deaf school is almost three hours away, which means that many families with deaf or hard-of-hearing children end up moving out of state to California or Texas once their children hit grade school. Unfortunately, this means Seattle loses many great parents and their deaf or hard-of-hearing children every year,” Greenlee said.
Lori Bellamy, another student in Seago’s class, went to an elementary school on the East Coast that was sister schools with a school for deaf children.
“The deaf kids would come to our school, and we would go to their school,” Bellamy explained. “It exposed me early on to ASL, but not enough to where I actually learned the language. I’ve always been curious.”
Last year, Bellamy won a year-long arts scholarship to NSCC. “I’ve been looking at all the ways people communicate,” she said. “Art is one way, but ASL is another.”
Seattle also has services for its blind population.
Angela Theriault, interim executive director of the Deaf-Blind Service Center on First Hill, said that blind people (or “deaf-blind,” the term the center uses) have access to accommodations but that more could be done.
Many deaf-blind individuals need Support Service Providers (SSPs) — trained, sighted guides and providers of visual and environmental information — so that blind people can go about their day independently and participate in the wider community. SSPs must know communication techniques used by the deaf-blind people, including ASL. SSPs are sometimes deaf-blind themselves.
However, the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) does not cover SSP service, precluding government funding or resources for SSPs.
“We’re trying to get that changed,” Theriault said.
This process has already begun in California, she said, where a mother of a blind child is actively meeting with the California justice department.
Theriault would like services for deaf-blind people in Seattle to be bolstered, including more accommodations in restaurants that are often dark, small and particularly difficult for blind-deaf people to access.
But Seattle is progressive when it comes to accommodating the deaf-blind community.
“Some states don’t pay SSPs,” Theriault noted as one example. “Texas has service providers, for instance, but are not paid; in Washington state, they are.”
Filling a need
With more than 35 million deaf or hard-of-hearing people in the United States (about 10 percent of the population), Seago and the many other ASL instructors around the city fill a need.
“I want to be an interpreter for the deaf,” said Maggie Vandermar-Poor, one of Seago’s students. “I’m getting as much experience as I can taking ASL classes, and I hope to get an internship or job that works with deaf kids.
Vandermar-Poor’s passion for deaf culture has no boundaries.
“It has always been in my life in some way. I’ve always taken ASL classes, summer camps as a kid,” she said. “It’s something that has stuck with me throughout my life.”
Vandermar-Poor wants Seattle to do a better job catering to the deaf community, which would include more interpreting services. But she appreciates many of the more recent accommodations the city put in place for people with disabilities.
“On the streets, there is the sidewalk button that makes noises and has the signs for people who are deaf or deaf-blind,” she said.
Greenlee said that if she had a deaf child, she would not give him or her cochlear implants. While Greenlee herself has one cochlear implant, which she received just a few years ago, she said that it wasn’t something she felt was necessary. (Greenlee can hear basic sounds with the implant.)
The debate continues among the deaf community about whether deaf children should receive cochlear implants. While children who receive implants at a young age have a chance at acquiring a spoken language, many feel the deaf culture is rich and should not be compromised.
Seago, who fell into teaching ASL, said, “ASL is my natural language. It’s part of who I am.”