Karen Frohman grew up in isolation. She was born deaf in one ear and hearing-impaired in the other. At first she tried desperately to fit in with the other students. She learned to speak and read lips before she learned sign language--anything to appear “normal.”
But classmates at her public school felt strange around Frohman. They made fun behind her back and called her “dumb.” In high school they did not invite her to their parties. They did not want to be with her at dances. “Can she hear the music anyway?”
Frohman--who can hear slightly with the help of a hearing aid--said she decided to give up. If she could not escape her loneliness by making friends, she would drown her unhappiness in alcohol, a dependable companion until she decided to break her addiction while at college in San Diego.
Because of the knowledge Frohman gained during her struggle with alcohol, the 26-year-old now works as a counselor at a special home in Whittier for recovering deaf and hearing-impaired drug abusers. Frohman says she wanted to help others, because there was little help available to her when she needed it several years ago.
The Whittier home is part of the Awakenings program, run by the Southeast Council on Alcoholism and Drug Problems Inc., a nonprofit organization headquartered in Downey. The program also includes an outpatient center in Downey and two alcohol recovery homes that opened in November.
The program is similar to Alcoholics Anonymous. Clients are asked to identify the problems that led to their addiction, set goals and develop a plan for survival after they leave the program. “It’s Life Style 101 for some,” said Lisa Markell, spokeswoman for the Southeast Council. “They are learning how to live by a regular schedule again.”
According to Bobbie Beth Scoggins, the program director, many more programs like Awakenings are needed to address the drug and alcohol abuse problem in the deaf community. Frohman’s story is far from unique. There are between 500,000 and 600,000 deaf and hearing-impaired people in Los Angeles County. Awakenings officials estimate that at least 33% of those people are substance abusers.
“There are many sad stories,” Scoggins said, using sign language. But there are few programs to address the problem.
Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous offer sign language for deaf people in Los Angeles County, but there are no other programs run by deaf people solely for deaf people, Scoggins said.
Since the Whittier house and the outpatient program were started about a year ago, about 100 people have graduated from the program. Offering the services has been a constant struggle, Scoggins said. Funding is scarce.
The house in Whittier and the outpatient program cost $277,013 a year to operate. Two recently opened alcohol recovery homes in Norwalk and Downey are expected to cost $122,000 annually. Funding for the program is provided by the Los Angeles County Alcohol Programs and the county Drug Abuse Program Office.
Scoggins said she wishes she could accommodate everyone who requests assistance, but it is impossible. Awakenings has a waiting list with two dozen names.
Frohman said that when she decided to break her addiction several years ago, she found the road to recovery was lonelier than anything she had experienced in school.
She attended a few Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in San Diego but could not overcome the communication barrier, even with the help of an interpreter. No one in the group could possibly understand the way she felt.
Alone, Frohman stopped drinking and slowly learned to accept her handicap. No more struggling to fit in.
“I’m coming to terms with my deafness,” Frohman said. “I’m coming to terms with who I am. I’m not going to let other people’s feelings bother and influence me.”
She said she receives the support she needs from her husband, who is hearing-impaired and also a recovering alcoholic, and from a counselor she visits occasionally.
“The problems are still there, the feelings are still there,” Frohman said. But now she has people to talk to in her “own language,” and she can offer the recovering alcoholics at the Whittier house the same support. Five staff members work at the house; all are deaf and most are former alcoholics or drug abusers.
Communication problems are the root of the substance abuse problem, said Nancy Riley, the head counselor at the Awakenings out-patient center.
“Ninety percent (of deaf people) are born to hearing parents,” said Riley, who is able to hear but is fluent in sign language. “But, 3% of those parents learn sign language. They want their children to learn how to talk. That’s a commonplace thing. It’s a rare parent who learns to sign. And that’s the real tragedy.”
As a result, children grow up not being able to tell their parents their thoughts and fears, paving the way for drug and alcohol abuse, Riley said.
The children also grow up not learning how to take care of themselves, she said. David, 27, one of the patients at the Whittier home, is a perfect example. He said he had never used a washing machine before he started the Awakenings program.
He never learned American Sign Language. He communicates by talking a little and using hand motions.
He said he starting smoking “crack” because his girlfriend was using it. It was a way to feel accepted and to alleviate his loneliness, David said.
He said he feels confident that after he leaves the six-month program, he will stay off drugs.
Riley said program officials hope to use Awakenings graduates as “role models” for deaf youngsters.
“There has been no education on drug abuse out there for deaf kids and there are few role models for them,” Riley said. “The kids have not learned about the dangers of drug abuse. We hear it on the radio, TV, or from friends. They do not have the advantages we have. But soon they will; that’s our dream anyway.”
Riley said Awakenings officials are forming a special curriculum on drug abuse. Next fall it is expected to be taught at the Marlton School for the deaf and hearing-impaired in Baldwin Hills.
“It’s very frustrating when you look at the big picture,” Riley said. “But we’re taking things one day at a time, one step at a time.”