Deaf and Proud to Use Sign Language

Sorkin is the first deaf president of the student government at the larger Rochester Institute of Technology, where 1,100 deaf students are mainstreamed among the 15,300 that attend the university.

"I was born with deep roots, and I wanted to honor that," said Sorkin, who is earning a master's degree in student affairs and hopes to make documentary films for the deaf.

"I cannot imagine being hearing. Because we are a minority, we come together. To be away from that support system is so hard to endure," she said.

Like Sorkin, only 10 percent of all deaf children are born to families where one or both parents are deaf.

Ninety percent have parents who are not deaf or hard of hearing.

With the advent of screening laws for newborns, parents can now learn early on whether their children are deaf, giving them the opportunity to make early decisions about education, support groups, and learning sign language.

Some choose the medical route.

According to federal data, nearly 22,000 adults and nearly 15,000 children in the United States have received cochlear implants.

The technology behind the implants is completely different from hearing aids, which amplify sounds.

Implants convert sound into electrical impulses that directly stimulate the auditory nerve. The brain, in turn, interprets these signals as sound; implants do not restore normal hearing. Intensive postsurgical therapy is necessary to learn or relearn the sense of hearing.

Angela Earhart, a deaf OB-GYN from Galveston, Texas, who is pregnant with her first child, is keeping an open mind about implants.

She learned to sign and speak at the age of 2.

Although she has not ruled out cochlear implants for herself down the road, for now, she said, "I am comfortable with who I am, and I'm afraid of losing who I am."

Earhart has also thought about what the future holds for the baby she is expecting in May.

If the child is deaf, she will wait to address the question of implants until the child is old enough to participate in the decision-making.

"I don't perceive being deaf in a negative way," she said.

At home, Earhart communicates with her hearing husband by signing and speaking. At work, she relies on her sign-language interpreter.

Meanwhile, half of Earhart's patients are Hispanics who need an English-Spanish interpreter, resulting in four-way communication that she takes in stride.

Christopher Lehfeldt, who was born profoundly deaf to hearing parents, has made a different decision.

He, too, was not diagnosed until he was 2 years old, and his parents got him hearing aids and taught him to read speech. It wasn't until Lehfeldt was in his early 20s that he learned to sign.

Today, at 45, Lehfeldt has a thriving business as a dentist in the deaf-friendly community of Rochester, where an estimated 20,000 to 90,000 of the 1 million residents are deaf or hard of hearing.

"I don't label myself as part of any group," Lehfeldt said. "I regard myself as being bicultural, bilingual with my deafness. Being a challenge or disability that makes life interesting for me."

Two years ago, Lehfeldt decided to undergo cochlear implants, a vast improvement over the two hearing aids he had struggled with all his life.

"It's far better than the itchy ears, ear molds shifting shape all the time causing feedback," he said. "I can hear so much more, especially higher frequencies. I had to learn how to hear, literally for the first time, like a baby, when I got activated."

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