Deaf and Proud to Use Sign Language

Lizzie Sorkin was born deaf to deaf parents, but when she reached high school age, her mother asked her whether she would consider the latest medical technology had to offer -- cochlear implants to restore some of her hearing.

Sorkin, now 25, refused and in doing so, set a bold path in establishing her own identity.

"I am deaf first before being a woman, before my faith, my sexual preference, my interests," said Sorkin via e-mail. "I didn't see my deafness as a problem. I didn't need to be fixed."

She is currently a student at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) in Rochester, N.Y..

Sorkin's attitude is a strong voice that is emerging in the national deaf community -- deafness is not a disability, but a way of life that does not call for medical intervention, but rather reinforcement and pride.

About 32.5 million Americans are deaf or hard of hearing, and that is all they have in common.

They represent a wide spectrum of ages and stages -- those born profoundly deaf and others who suffered hearing loss as a result of illness or age.

Two to three in 1,000 babies born in the United States have a detectable hearing loss.

About 600,000 to 650,000 of the deaf population are profoundly deaf, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

Last month, students at Gallaudet University, the nation's premier liberal arts college for the deaf and hard of hearing, toppled President Jane K. Fernandes for an array of grievances -- including the fact that she was not "deaf enough."

Their victory solidified the university's commitment to sign language and set the stage for a more aggressive deaf pride movement.

Many who are deaf are eschewing new medical advances like cochlear implants and sophisticated hearing aids in favor of preserving the traditional bonds they feel with others who communicate by signing.

A small, but growing number of deaf parents are even intentionally using embryonic genetic testing to ensure that their children share their deafness.

"I was born deaf, and I believe that I should just leave it the way it is," said Lisa Velez, a 20-year-old who also attends NTID at Rochester Institute of Technology, the second-largest American university devoted to the deaf.

As other minorities like blacks, women or gays have historically felt the need to find commonality, so have the deaf.

Experts say there are two camps: those who view their world as pathological -- deafness as a disability to be overcome -- and those who revel in the cultural aspects of deafness, using sign language and sharing a set of values.

Sorkin grew up using sign language to communicate with her family.

American Sign Language, now considered a world language and the third most frequently used in the United States, is a nuanced and visual language that encompasses many dialects and grammatical structures.

Although American Sign Language may see some decline in coming years because of improved hearing technologies, it is gaining popularity among parents who want their babies to learn sign and among hearing college students taking ASL for foreign language credit, according to Jamie Berke, a graduate of Gallaudet.

"Deaf people who can hear with hearing aids or cochlear implants may need sign language to help in closing communication gaps," she said.

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