Deaf Gain New Voice : Innovative Tools, Services Help Break Silence Barrier

Times Staff Writer

The world went silent for Patricia Halloran more than 60 years ago, when she tumbled off a stairway inside her family’s home in Tennant, Iowa.

She was just a toddler then and couldn’t understand. Even the grown-ups, it seemed, were at a loss. No one could explain where the sounds went or why they would never come back. So Patricia, Tennant’s only deaf resident, had to go it on her own.

She would point and drag people by the hand and occasionally stamp her feet to make herself understood. Her own understanding came only from what she saw. There were no jokes, no songs and no secret stories.


“I could see other people talk, and it made me mad,” she says. “I would look real hard at their lips to see if I could understand, but I got very frustrated.”

Patricia Halloran is now Patricia Luna, 62, and recently retired after working 26 years as a data processor at Hughes Aircraft. She and her husband, Frank, who is also deaf, live in Anaheim. They have three children and three grandchildren, all of whom can hear.

Today, the Lunas no longer have to drive across town just to leave a note, or speak to the hearing world exclusively through their children, or make up their own plots to accompany the flashing images on the television screen.

Technology, and sheer persistence, have changed that.

When they wish to communicate with their deaf friends, the Lunas can type their words into a Telecommunication Device for the Deaf, a compact computer known as a TDD that signals an incoming call by flashing lights.

Should they need to call a hearing person, they can dial a telephone relay service where volunteers translate their message to the person on the other end. Thanks to closed captions--subtitles projected on their television screen by a decoding device--they can understand most of the same programs and movies that the hearing world enjoys.

The Lunas, just two of the more than 130,000 hearing-impaired people in Orange County, sometimes marvel over how much easier their lives have become. They and other deaf people of their generation have charted the movement toward deaf equality with the changes in their own lives.

And lately, they say, things have been going well. Deaf people, even those without voices of their own, are being heard.

The most recent watershed for the deaf civil rights movement came only this March, when protesting students at Gallaudet University in Washington, the nation’s only university specifically for the deaf, forced Elisabeth Ann Zinser to resign as university president.

Zinser, who is not deaf and does not know sign language, lasted only a week in the post. When I. King Jordan, a deaf man who was dean of the school’s College of Arts and Sciences, was named to replace her, the students, and deaf people in general, greeted the news with jubilation.

Marlee Matlin, the deaf actress who won an Oscar last year for her performance in “Children of a Lesser God,” also has given new visibility to the more than 21 million Americans who are hearing-impaired. During her appearance at the Academy Awards ceremony last month, she used sign language and her voice to introduce the nominees for best actor.

In Orange County, deaf people have formed several service and recreational clubs, and, in conjunction with Holy Family Cathedral in Orange, are in the process of creating an advocacy group for the deaf. Within the public school system, deaf children are provided with sign language interpreters and special educational settings geared toward integrating them into the hearing world.

Several employers are providing sign language interpreters for their deaf employees. Hearing people are enrolling in classes to learn sign language. In cooperation with several organizations for the deaf, the Sign Language Club at Mission Viejo’s Saddleback College recently presented “The Quiet Zone Theater,” a variety show performed entirely in American Sign Language (of the numerous sign languages, ASL is the most dominant in this country) with vocal interpreters.

And the month of May, nationwide, is Deaf Awareness Month.

But all of this, deaf people say, is not to imply a struggle overcome. Discrimination and ignorance about the deaf abound. Many of the technological advances that have so enriched the lives of the hearing-impaired are linked to the caprices of politicians who control state and federal purse strings.

Yet, overall, the story of deafness in America, and Orange County in particular, is one of progress and hope. It is a story easily told by the participants themselves. All you need to do is listen with your eyes.

Patricia Luna was 6 years old when her parents led her into that classroom filled with children gesturing wildly with their hands.

At the time, she says, she didn’t know that this was to mark the beginning of her formal education. Her parents, both of whom had normal hearing, had no way of letting her know.

“My mother and father tried to leave,” Luna recalls, “and I didn’t want to stay. Then a teacher took me into a playroom with lots of toys. When I started to get involved, my parents had disappeared.”

It was several days later that Luna realized that this, the Iowa School for the Deaf, was to be her new home. She missed her parents but soon began making new friends, children like herself, who could not hear. Luna stayed at the school for six years.

“I really liked playing with these kids because at home there were really no friends for me,” she says. “I would play with my cousins or a few neighbor kids, but they would just end up dragging me along. There was no communication.”

Soon, Luna says, she began to learn sign language. Her world was beginning to open up.

Frank Luna, too, was experiencing his own awakening, one that came in fits and starts.

One of seven children of a foreman who oversaw fruit pickers in La Habra, Luna was sent to a deaf institute in Berkeley in 1931, when he was 5. His two deaf sisters, 9 and 10 at the time, started school with him.

“I was rebellious,” Frank Luna, a machinist, says of those early years. He says he resented attempts to teach him lip-reading, an extremely difficult skill that can never fully convey the meaning of spoken speech.

But Frank Luna transferred to classes taught in sign language and finally graduated from the Berkeley school, completing 12th grade at the age of 21. And it was during those years in Berkeley that he befriended his future wife, who had transferred to the school when she was 12.

They were married in 1953 in Inglewood, Calif., and their first child, Debie, was born two years later.

Patricia Luna says she was surprised. The child could hear.

Soon she began teaching her daughter American Sign Language. Debie’s maternal grandparents taught her English.

But it wasn’t easy. Because Debie’s first language was sign language, with its own unique grammar, she had difficulty with English. Her pronunciation was so bad that she required a speech therapist in elementary school.

“My English has always been bad,” Debie Luna, 33, says today. “Since my first language was sign language and my second language was English, if the word was like aluminum, mascara, cinnamon . . . I would see it in a book, and it was like, ‘What am I going to do?’ ”

The Lunas’ other two children, Mike, 30, and Jenny, 27, had similar problems. And Debie says she has memories of staying at home to interpret for her parents while her friends were playing outside.

But Patricia and Frank Luna say their relationship with their children, thanks in large part to a common language, is more open than the one they shared with their own parents.

Frank Luna says the only way he could communicate with his mother, who spoke only Spanish, was by writing down a brief message for his father or brother to translate.

“I missed a lot,” he says. “There were a lot of misunderstandings.”

And Patricia Luna says her relationship with her mother was not very close either.

“My mother was afraid,” she says. “She really didn’t understand me because of my deafness.”

Joanne Keller, at the time an 18-year-old newlywed in Santa Ana, didn’t understand much about deafness herself. Or at least that is what the professionals told her.

When her son, Tim Spires, was 4 months old, she began to think that perhaps the reason he would jump when she touched him from behind was because he could not hear her footsteps.

But the child’s pediatrician told her she was wrong.

“So I just kept watching him, and taking him back to the doctor, and watching him,” Keller says. “Then he started toddling around the furniture. When he would touch something he wasn’t supposed to, I’d say, ‘No,’ and he would totally ignore me. Then I’d go over and pat him on the bottom and say, ‘No, you can’t do that,’ and I’d scare the holy bejesus out of him.”

Keller, convinced of her son’s hearing loss, began investigating the matter on her own. But she says none of the doctors she consulted took her concerns seriously, that each one gave her a different story and that all of them viewed her as simply a naive young woman.

“I had no idea; no one helped me,” Keller, 34, says of that painful time some 15 years ago. “There was nothing out there at that time that said, ‘Here, this is what you need to do, this is the direction that you need to go.”’

But Keller says she and her son--alone after Keller’s husband walked out on them within a year of the marriage--were lucky. Through a friend of the family, Keller got in touch with several specialty clinics, which eventually led her to a pilot program for deaf children, ages 18 months to 3 years, at Taft Elementary School in Santa Ana.

After a meeting with the program’s deaf principal, a man Keller credits with opening her eyes about deaf people’s potential, she bought a book about sign language and began teaching her son. Tim, on the waiting list to enter the program, enrolled six months later, when he was 2 years old.

“He just blossomed,” his mother says from her Mission Viejo home.

Now 16, Tim Spires is a sophomore at Irvine’s University High School, where a special program for hearing-impaired children from throughout Orange County is in its second year. The program includes teaching deaf students in separate classes as well as “mainstreaming” them (integrating them in regular hearing classes) for all or part of their day.

Tim says he can’t even remember the frustration his mother says he felt as a toddler, when he had no way to communicate with her, virtually the only person in his silent world.

Now a teen-ager with many friends and daydreams about getting his driver’s license, he communicates fluently in sign language and spends a lot of time yakking it up on his TDD.

But although he has never grappled with the kind of isolation that deaf people like the Lunas knew, he says he has felt some discrimination and certainly encountered a lot of ignorance from the hearing world.

He has given up on high school sports rather than face the frustration of attending practices but not playing in the games. After two years on the wrestling team, he competed in only two matches, and, despite a year of practice as a football wide receiver, never got on the field during a game.

“It was too much pain,” he says. “It’s hard to communicate. The coach didn’t know what deaf people can do. We are the same (as other people); we just can’t hear.”

Recently Tim has begun applying for part-time jobs, but he says he still hasn’t persuaded anybody to take a chance on him.

“Before, black people were what was strange,” he says, “but now being deaf is the strange thing. But I believe that people will grow up and accept us, just like the blacks were accepted.”

Tim doesn’t see his deafness as much of a handicap. He says he will go to college, and he hopes to land a good-paying job as an accountant or a computer specialist. His future wife, he says, could either be deaf or hearing, so long as she is fluent in sign language.

A rueful smile crosses Joanne Keller’s lips as she listens to her son’s words with her eyes. She says that blessed as he has been, the education and technology that have so helped her son have also sheltered him.

“I fear that he has no idea what the real world has waiting out there for him,” she says. “It is hard enough to grow up and to handle situations, go on job interviews and try to make a prosperous life for yourself. And he has always had the best of both worlds.

“But when he gets out of the educational system, reality will set in,” she adds. “And he is going to be faced with the fact that there are not going to be that many people out there that can communicate with him, unless he happens to be lucky.”

Sylvia and John Yingst, both deaf, both college graduates, are looking ahead.

Seated in the living room of their Santa Ana home, the Yingsts say they believe that their young children, both of them deaf, will have opportunities that were out of reach just a generation ago.

Neither of the children has been without closed-captioned television, neither has known the frustration of not being able to communicate with parents. Jason, 5, attends preschool at Taft Elementary School, and Melissa, 9, is mainstreamed, accompanied by an interpreter, at the same school.

“The biggest advantage they have are deaf parents,” says John Yingst, 34, a lab assistant at Kaiser Hospital. “We have open communication. That helps us avoid the problems that we had when we were growing up.”

Sylvia Yingst, 33, a data processor, says her relationship with her daughter is already much closer than the one she had with her own hearing parents.

“She knows us so well, our experiences, our feelings, everything,” Sylvia Yingst says. “When I was a little girl, I felt so limited. I really didn’t know my parents very well. I would ask questions, and my mother would answer me in very abbreviated sentences.

“I didn’t learn much, and I didn’t understand.”

Sylvia and John Yingst, who met at Gallaudet University, say that until they learned sign language in college they were simply unaware of all that the world had to offer.

John, who grew up in Dayton, Ohio, recalls being slapped on the hand when his teachers or his parents would catch him gesturing with his hands in the made-up, tactile hieroglyphics that he and other deaf people know as “home signs.”

“It was very hard for me to understand,” he says. “It’s just a different philosophy.”

John Yingst says his parents believed that if he learned sign language at too young an age, he would never learn to read lips and function in the hearing world.

Sylvia Yingst says her parents believed the same, although she adds that they have since seen that learning sign language can only enhance a deaf person’s understanding.

(At Taft Elementary, where the Yingst children go to school, all parents of deaf children are required to learn sign language. In an effort to alleviate the problems that many deaf people face with understanding English, however, the school teaches a relatively new form of sign language called Signing Exact English, or SEE. Unlike American Sign Language, SEE incorporates such English grammatical nuances as gerunds and suffixes.)

John Yingst compares the deaf world today to the hearing world of the 1960s, when the black civil rights movement was getting off the ground.

“They were oppressed,” he says of black people. “They didn’t have a chance to be promoted to the top. Now they are moving up.”

Sylvia adds that maybe one day all hotel rooms will be equipped with closed-caption television decoders or with telephones that “ring” by flashing lights.

And both parents say they want their children to go to college and have careers more successful than their own.

“Maybe they will go to UCLA or USC,” Sylvia Yingst says.

“No, I think it should be Gallaudet,” her husband counters.

With that, they turn toward each other as they share a big smile.

The choice, they say, will be up to the children themselves.