At an Anchorage rally, a glimpse of the challenges of being deaf in Alaska

Self-described “rabble rouser” Albert Berke is at it again. He made news in 1990 at the age of 61 as the subject of a profile in the publication Deaf USA for being the force behind the McGraw Hill Book Company’s first-ever “Deaf Encyclopedia,” and for starting programs, expanding services and educating lawmakers about the needs of deaf people. A lifelong advocate for deaf rights, the Anchorage octogenarian has come to view equality and fairness for deaf people as a fundamental civil rights issue.

He is not alone.

In lime green T-shirts, the Deaf Grassroots Movement made itself visible across the nation Wednesday, when people gathered for daylong events in dozens of cities across the nation to draw attention to issues of inequality and oppression. Anchorage’s daylong protest took place on the Park Strip downtown.

According to DGM’s Facebook page, “the Deaf Grassroots Movement is a national grassroots movement that is pushing the Deaf Rights Activists to engage in nonviolent direct action, including civil betterment, to end the jobs/education discrimination, to shatter the communication barrier and to provide equality for all!”

Feelings that oppression and discrimination exist are not isolated to the DGM. In an editorial published in the the National Association of the Deaf’s Spring 2016 magazine, NAD CEO Howard Rosenblum noted that although the organization has been around for 136 years, “even in 2016, deaf and hard of hearing individuals still experience paternalism, inaccessibility, scorn and discrimination. Too often language is denied to deaf and hard of hearing babies during their most precious initial years. Employers continue to overlook qualified and talented deaf and hard of hearing people seeking to contribute their skills.”

In the article Rosenblum goes on to describe the inequalities experienced by deaf people within the justice and health care systems. The same barriers that exist on the national level exist in Alaska, according to Berke and the Anchorage protest’s participants. 

Sitting in his wheelchair, wearing checkered flannel pants, a black fleece and lime green hat to match his shirt, Berke, who is deaf, described himself as the Anchorage event’s PR guy. To his wheelchair he’d attached a handwritten sign with a quote scrawled in black letters attributed to the Rev. Jesse Jackson: “The problem is not that the Deaf don’t hear, the problem is that the hearing won’t listen.”

Watching a few children — some deaf, some hearing — play on the grass, Berke framed the movement’s urgency.

“I hope they won’t have the same problems we have now. We will free them,” Berke said through an interpreter.

According to the state of Alaska, “hearing loss is one of the most common birth disorders in newborns. … 33 Alaskan babies are born every year with permanent hearing loss. When combined with children who develop hearing loss after they are born, as many as 15 in every thousand Alaskan children will have some degree of hearing disorder.”

It adds up to more than 25,000 people in Alaska who are deaf or hard of hearing and in need of support, according to the Denali Deaf Community Center.

The DGM likens itself to other civil rights movements. Laws protecting rights to public access, education and job opportunities have been passed for African-Americans, women and LGBT people. “It’s our turn!” proclaimed a sign in red marker.

Berke is relentless. He called me multiple times to get the word out about Wednesday’s protest. As I left the park, he handed me a book by psychologist Harlan Lane, who specialized in psychology and linguistics.

The book, “The Mask of Benevolence: Disabling the Deaf Community,” was published in 1992. It deals with the canyon of misperception between how many hearing people view the deaf and how the deaf view themselves. Lane noted that society mostly views deaf people as disabled. But his argument, which I think is important to the DGM’s overall level of frustration and its rising advocacy, is that instead of being disabled, “deaf people are a linguistic and cultural minority.”

Language acquisition, its use and the cognitive development that follows are essential for early learners. The education model that Berke and others argue serves deaf people best is one akin to bilingual immersion, with American Sign Language and English, which are grammatically unrelated.

Alaska educates its deaf and hearing-impaired students through the Alaska State School for Deaf and Hard of Hearing, which is housed within the Anchorage School District. Adequate, direct education in a person’s native language is essential, Berke told me. For many deaf people, that language is ASL. 

Berke asserted that Alaska’s school for the deaf was losing its only teacher and was quite concerned about it. However, while there is only one teacher for deaf students at the middle school level, the position is filled. The middle school teacher position is only one of several that serve students across all age ranges, according to the school’s director, Ann Curry, in an interview later that afternoon. 

Curry offered reassurance that the school, which operates from within Russian Jack Elementary, Clark Middle School and East High School, is staffed and will next year gain its own staff psychologist in addition to its existing counselor. Seven teachers and 13 interpreters either offer direct education within a dedicated classroom, or join students in general education environment to provide interpretive services.

Curry, who joined the district last year from out of state, said while there are challenges nationally, she feels Anchorage offers an education environment that overall is serving the deaf community well.

Curry is also the mother of two deaf children. So while she doesn’t know what it’s like to be deaf herself, as an ally, she understands the long-standing frustrations and barriers that remain in place.

“Deafness is the invisible disability. We know as individuals in the field of deafness, we have to help them in their actions to have equal access, to have their opinions heard, to feel supported in that they are equal community members,” she said. “What happens in hearing people’s minds is that it is just a language barrier and not a disability.”

Being deaf, Curry emphasized, is not the same as speaking English as a second language, or more specifically, as a second oral and written language. Knowing Spanish and learning English is not the same thing as knowing American Sign Language and learning English, an oral and verbal form of communication, as a totally different type of language altogether. 

Curry believes the deaf community is pleading, “We need support. We need people to understand how important our language is; how important language is to our children.”

Many of the complaints from the deaf community hinge on the lack of access to quality communication. Because deafness is a federally recognized disability, there are accommodation requirements in workplaces and in education that must be met.

In reviewing recent years’ cases, Dave Fluerant, executive director of the Disability Law Center of Alaska, found that issues faced within Alaska’s deaf community “have involved seemingly all aspects of the community; employment, education, accessing businesses.” Employers don’t seem to understand their obligations for accommodating deaf people, and “as a result, (deaf people) are either not hired or promoted,” he said.

In education, Fluerant said areas of dispute are similar to those faced by any child with special needs. Accommodations should be tailored to the need of the individual learner, instead of making a blanket mandate that all deaf or hard of hearing children learn ASL.

At Wednesday’s protest, deaf community members told stories of blocked opportunities and frightening situations. They talked about the isolation of spending a night in jail, or court, or serving a prison term without an interpreter. Of being deaf and homeless. Of having to navigate medical appointments and decode medical terminology using a second language — written English — or with an interpreter. Interpreters assist in different ways. Some show up in person to translate. Others help long-distance through a service called video remote interpreting. Jeff Cosma, a deaf man who attended Wednesday’s rally, said his experience with VRI has been unreliable. Often, the connection is glitchy or the computer equipment needed to make the call freezes up, he said. 

In general, interpreters are a thorny topic. School-based interpreters are certified to different standards than freelance interpreters. Not all interpreters interpret to a uniform standard. Are they overeducated? Undereducated? From Curry’s standpoint, more education is better, so that the student receiving service is being taught by someone with the best language skills in all settings.

Issues with interpreters are only one part of the overall battle the deaf community says it faces. “Every day, deaf and hard of hearing people experience injustice, discrimination and oppression,” Rosenblum wrote in his Spring 2016 magazine editorial. “Equality is our goal, towards which we must all work.”

Berke, who says he’s worn out his welcome at the governor’s office and with Anchorage’s mayor, appears to be in it for the long haul.

“I am a troublemaker. I have a reputation (for) clashing with people. I won’t keep my mouth shut,” he said. 

Jill Burke is a longtime Alaska journalist writing from the center of a busy family life. Her father swore by “Burke’s Law No. 1 — never take no for an answer.” Meaning, don’t give up in the face of adversity. The lesson stuck. Share your ideas with her at jill@alaskadispatch.com, on Facebook or on Twitter.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.


At an Anchorage rally, a glimpse of the challenges of being deaf in Alaska

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