Deaf and Proud to Use Sign Language

He believes cochlear implants are "just another tool in the arsenal for better hearing that helps with full inclusion in the mainstream."

But, Lehfeldt said, "No one person speaks for the deaf."

His patient Tom Rickey, who works as a writer at the nearby University of Rochester Medical Center and has been treated by Lehfeldt for 15 years, has only praise for the dental care he has received.

"When I first went to him, I had this fear that he wouldn't know if I was in pain -- no matter how loud I might yell, he wouldn't hear me," Rickey said "But he has been a great, wonderful, kind, sensitive dentist, and my teeth are much improved, too."

Rochester has become a mecca for deaf professionals like Lehfeldt.

Rickey's Catholic priest is deaf, and the newspaper has a reporter who covers the deaf community.

Six doctors, as well as a veterinarian and two lawyers, are deaf and serve both hearing and nonhearing clients.

Many retailers sign and have Interpretype machines; movie theaters have open-captioned movies.

Much of the reason the city has been a model for integration between the deaf and the hearing is that it is home to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, which was established by a federal grant in 1965 to provide a need for technical higher education.

With the technology school, there is also a cochlear-implant center, and about 200 of the 1,100 deaf students have the devices.

The institute is a pioneer in the use of video, CD, DVD and Web streaming so those with hearing loss have constant access to communication and information.

With several hundred videophones in dorm rooms, classrooms and offices, faculty, staff and students can see each other and sign directly.

The university also provides C-print, a speech-to-text transcription service, in classrooms so students with hearing loss can read what the professor is saying in real time, as well as 122 full-time interpreters.

NTID director Alan Hurwitz finds himself right in the middle of the debate on deaf culture.

Born profoundly deaf to deaf parents, with one grown child who is hard of hearing and another who is deaf, he has watched the evolution of the deaf culture.

The 64-year-old feels the emotional tug of memories of his all-deaf home, but he also knows that technological advances have helped level the playing field for deaf and hard-of-hearing people.

Deafness is a "nonissue," according to Hurwitz, with computers, Blackberries, instant messaging, videophones, and real-time speech-to-text captioning, allowing deaf people to participate immediately.

"Some of us grow up using sign. Others elect to have cochlear implants," he said. "They are all proud to be deaf."

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