With impassioned shouts and raised hands, a crowd reacted Wednesday to stories of discrimination against people who are deaf or hard of hearing and applauded to speeches detailing efforts to end it.
The statements were part of a rally at the state Capitol organized by the Missouri Deaf Grassroots Movement. The event was linked to a nationwide campaign to advocate for improved access to employment, education and communication for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
A September protest in Washington, D.C., brought attention to a dearth of rights for the community and started the national movement.
At the rally Wednesday, participants shared testimonies about discrimination in the workplace, school, medical facilities, organizations and sports teams. Securing interpreters appeared to be one of the main obstacles. About 200 people attended the event, marching through the Capitol halls and waving signs and hands.
“We just really want to get their attention … and we want to make sure our rights, as a deaf person, and our language and our culture is protected,” said Paul Kiel, one of the event’s organizers.
Wednesday was the first time the deaf and hard of hearing community took its advocacy efforts to the Capitol, Kiel said, and it won’t be the last.
“This is not a one-day protest,” Kiel said as participants shook their hands in the air, the American Sign Language sign for applause. “We’re going to continue doing this annually until we have the laws changed and our needs met.”
Coleen Burdiss, independent living specialist at Paraquad, said through an interpreter she is tired of seeing deaf or hard of hearing children fail due to language deprivation. Most deaf children are born to hearing parents, and they fail to receive the language skills they need. Instead of offering sign language, they jump to hearing aids and cochlear implants.
“Cochlear implants are tools, but they’re not a cure,” Burdiss said.
She and her husband, Bryan, are deaf and have a son who is hearing. Burdiss said it has been difficult to attend parent-teacher meetings and sports events for her son because interpreters have not always been provided. Her son’s graduation was the first time they were accommodated.
Career advancement is another problem for the deaf and hard of hearing community.
“A lot of people talking about not being able to advance in their career because they need to be able to make phone calls, which you can do with video phone services,” said Emily Fry, information program specialist for the Missouri Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. “But the company has to understand that technology and provide it.”
Kiel said people in at least 45 states participated in the nationwide movement Wednesday by traveling to their capitols and advocating for the rights of people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Fry said its important for the deaf community to advocate for itself.
“We’re really excited when we see people come out to the Capitol and advocate for themselves. … I can tell you all day that deaf people are discriminated against in employment, but until you see somebody sitting in front of you and saying, ‘I lost my job because they would not provide an interpreter, even though I’m qualified to do my job,’ it’s different. It’s really different,” Fry said.
The Missouri Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing supports two bills being considered in the Legislature.
House Bill 1696 would require the commission to provide grants for families of people who are deaf and blind. The bill passed the House in March, House Fiscal Review and the Senate Government Accountability and Fiscal Oversight Committee.
The commission also supports House Bill 1904, which would create a text-to-911 service. The bill passed the House, House Fiscal Review, two Senate committees and has been placed on the informal Senate calendar.
“I’ve heard just within the (deaf) community, if you need to call 911, you call, and if you’re able to voice, which not everybody can, you repeat over and over again, ‘My name is this, I am deaf, this is where I am…’ But that’s not efficient,” Fry said. “If I, as a hearing person, call 911, they can get information from me and there’s communication to help figure out what’s happening, and we just don’t have access to that right now in this state.”
About 4 percent of Missourians reported a hearing disability in the 2013 Disability Status Report in Missouri. But only about 1 percent of Missourians identify as deaf, Fry said. Deaf people understand how to interact with hearing people, he noted, but hearing people don’t necessarily know how to interact with deaf people.
“The hearing community is very large, and we’re just a small group. So it’s going to take time for us to get our message out, and it’s going to take a lot of work,” Kiel said.
He added hearing people should be sensitive the needs of people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
“Respect our choices, our language and our communication needs,” Kiel said.
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Deaf rally makes its case heard