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Town for signers sparks debate over separation vs. integration

Hogan, Michelle

doi: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000324245.26923.3f

A report on a proposed town in South Dakota where ASL will be the preferred mode of communication.

Michelle Hogan is an editorial assistant with Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, publisher of The Hearing Journal.



Marvin Miller has long talked about building a fully accessible village for the deaf, he says. About 5 years ago, that discussion grew more serious.

“We realized in our conversations that what we were talking about was a town where sign language and a visual communication mode were the primary function,” says M.E. Barwacz, Miller's mother-in-law, who is hearing, about her discussions with her son-in-law, who is deaf. “Therefore, we decided that just a neighborhood was not enough.”

Now, Miller, 33, whose wife, Jennifer Miller, 32, and their four children are also deaf, is working with Barwacz to realize this dream among the farms of southeastern South Dakota. Miller and Barwacz, who has two daughters, one deaf and one hearing, are developing a town for signers. But, taking place against the backdrop of Deaf Culture and advances in hearing care technology, their vision has opened up a debate over isolation and the relationship between those with a hearing loss and the rest of society.

Miller and Barwacz plan to name the town Laurent after Laurent Clerc, the French-born pioneer in deaf education who introduced sign language to America. Miller, raised in Flint, MI, and Barwacz, originally from Grand Rapids, MI, moved with Miller's family to Salem, ND, a few years ago. The two formed The Laurent Company to develop the town, and Barwacz, Miller, and his family plan to be the first to settle there.

Barwacz and Miller cite Martha's Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts, as an example of the type of community they want to create. For centuries, the island had an exceptionally high percentage of profoundly deaf people because of dominant and recessive genes brought there in the early 17th century by the first English settlers. Though now a popular summer resort, Martha's Vineyard remained very isolated well into the 19th century. In 1854, one in 155 people on the island was born deaf, a rate 37 times as high as in the overall U.S. population at the time.

“For nearly 300 years, hearing and deaf alike grew up there communicating via sign language,” says Alan Hur-witz, EdD, vice-president of Rochester [NY] Institute of Technology and dean of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), in an e-mail. “This all-signing community dissipated with improved transportation, the beginning of schools for the deaf, and a change in marriage patterns.”

Today, American Sign Language (ASL) is the fifth most commonly studied language in U.S. colleges and universities, Hurwitz and Miller say. However, there has been no large-scale movement to establish an all-deaf community since two failed attempts in the 1800s, Hurwitz says.

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Miller titles the overview of Laurent posted on the town's web site ( “A Place of Our Own.” He writes that the town will serve as a way for deaf people to achieve political influence and economic growth, and at the same time dismantle barriers between the deaf and hearing communities.



“In the American deaf community, we do not view deafness as a handicap,” Miller explains, adding, “The hearing society that we live in is inadvertently handicapping us.”

Laurent has been designed to accommodate people with hearing loss. Homes and businesses will employ open space and glass to facilitate signing across distances, emergency alert systems will use more lights and fewer sirens, and the town will be equipped with high-speed Internet connections to expedite e-mail and video relay services. Town meetings will be conducted in ASL, and employees of local businesses will communicate with customers in sign.

The developers chose the site in South Dakota's McCook County partly for economic and political reasons. Only 5832 people now live in the county, so Laurent's proposed population of 2500 would be large enough, Miller anticipates, to give the town some economic and political influence. Since the site is only 35 miles west of Sioux Falls, which has over 100,000 people, and close to Interstate 90, Miller expects tourism to be a source of business for the town.

The town plans are complete, and The Laurent Company hopes to break ground this summer. As of mid-April, 107 parties (individuals and families) had signed their names to Laurent's non-binding reservation list.

Miller and Barwacz are unsure if any of this group have cochlear implants or hearing aids, but add that they expect some of the people who move to Laurent to use hearing technology. “We will welcome anyone with implants and hearing aids into the community,” Miller wrote in an e-mail. “In Laurent, it's not your ability to hear or not that defines you. it's your sign language skills. We're trying to move away from ‘deaf versus hearing’ to a ‘signers versus non-signers’ paradigm.”

The founders say they envision a diverse community, and, says Miller, the town's school will reflect that. He wants his four children to attend Laurent Public School, which he expects will be bilingual and educate children with and without a hearing loss. He says, “This will provide my children with hearing peers who can sign very well and provide ‘peer pressure’ in terms of motivating my children to learn how to speak and lip-read as well.”

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Hearing healthcare providers and their clients generally agree that one of the primary purposes of hearing care technology and services is to help hearing-impaired persons function effectively in the mainstream so they are not isolated by their disability. So, many of them would undoubtedly view the founding of Laurent as a step in the opposite direction—toward isolation.

However, some leaders in the deaf community agree with Laurent's founders that the town will not be isolationist, but rather will help deaf, hearing, and hard-of-hearing people to learn from each other.

Nancy J. Bloch, MA, chief executive officer of the National Association of the Deaf, wrote in an e-mail that she envisions the active involvement of Laurent residents in politics, the economy, and education.

“I fully believe that Laurent promises to be an integrated environment that will demonstrate how sign language as a common denominator can bring together a diverse range of deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing people having a common interest in building a barrier-free community,” Bloch says. The NAD board has formally commended The Laurent Company's efforts.

A town devoted to sign language will further interactions among deaf and hearing people by drawing visitors, says Barbara Raimondo, JD, director of public affairs for the American Society for Deaf Children. “I find that people who see sign language think it's really cool,” she says. “People will be interested to go there.”

The ability of people with a hearing loss to communicate without barriers is essential, Barwacz emphasizes. She recalls coming to the realization that when people communicated with her daughter, Jennifer, the message went through a series of filters, including her teachers and mother, before it finally reached her. “I thought what a narrow, narrow way to grow,” she says.

Others, like Hurwitz of NTID, see the appeal of Laurent and admire the initiative, but would not want to move there themselves. “It would be nice to go anywhere in town, [to] a barber, a banker, an attorney, a doctor, a landscaper, or whatever, and be able to communicate without having to resort to paper and pencil, use of an interpreter, or a family member,” says Hurwitz. Personally, though, he would rather stay in Rochester.

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On the other hand, some leading advocates for the hearing-impaired population oppose what they view as the isolationism underlying Laurent. Terry Portis, EdD, executive director of Self Help for Hard of Hearing People (SHHH), sees Laurent as cutting people with a hearing loss off from the rest of society. “Whenever people with any type of physical or cognitive disability are isolated or segregated from the rest of the population that causes me some concern,” Portis says, noting how historically society has segregated these individuals. He concedes, “I guess in this case it's being done voluntarily.”

Todd Houston, PhD, executive director and CEO of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, reports an increased demand for his organization's services, as more and more people with impaired hearing are choosing to be part of the larger community. He also notes that early identification, early intervention, and cochlear implants at an early age are changing how people growing up with a hearing loss today communicate.

Houston says, “We are seeing a number of these children, probably a majority of them, using spoken language.” The use of spoken language, he notes, enables people to integrate into society, despite their hearing loss. He continues, “From the association's perspective, we believe that [people] should be able to live anywhere they want.” He adds, “We're providing more choices for parents and those children who will grow up and be able to go to any school, any college, live in any town. It's exciting to see.”

Barwacz rejects the idea that Laurent's residents will be cut off. In fact, she suggests, deaf and hard-of-hearing people may move there to escape feeling isolated. She explains, “The reality is that anybody who lives with a hearing disability or a communication disability knows the isolation that you face every day of your life. What we're doing is allowing all the hearing people of the world to finally have a way to communicate with people who use American Sign Language.”

© 2005 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.