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Technology breaking down barriers between deaf and hearing communities
Technological advances, which have changed the way everyone communicates, and a growing popularity among college students to learn American Sign Language have removed even more obstacles to the deaf community and the hearing community connecting. - photo by Mandy Morgan
When Laurence Whitworth went out to play or to school as a child, his mother couldn't enjoy the peace of mind knowing that her son could pick up a phone and call if something was wrong.

That would have been more than just a convenience, considering Whitworth is deaf

"My mom would have to let me go and basically pray that nothing happens to me," Whitworth recalled in an interview using Google Chat.

Whitworth doesn't experience that anxiety as a parent today. Whitworth and his wife Elise, who is also deaf, have two boys who can hear, and communication is the least of their challenges in the home. In fact, for the boys, ages 11 and 13, speaking into a cellphone is foreign. Texting and video messages are how they communicate with their parents most frequently.

Communication has always been key to opportunity for the deaf community. But technological advances, which have changed the way everyone communicates, and a growing popularity among college students to learn American Sign Language have removed even more obstacles to the deaf community and the hearing community connecting.

"Recent technology advances have been very good to bridge gaps between deaf and hearing people," said Christopher Krentz, an English and ASL professor at the University of Virginia, using video-phone technology to speak.

In a hearing world

For Elise Whitworth, gaining a varied language education made all the difference. Being exposed to sign language and English speaking and writing was what has shaped her ability to communicate with many people.

She graduated with degrees in journalism and business management and now runs two businesses with her husband.

The real challenges came when she became the mother of two hearing boys.

"Growing up, communication challenges were there but it only affected me. So it was easy to 'shrug my shoulders' and miss out on half the communication with the hearing people in my life," Whitworth said.

"But when I had kids, hearing people would talk to my kids and not make sure we are reading their lips OK, and I'd get all 'mama bear' and frustrated," Whitworth recalled. "When it was just me, I'd move on and live life. With my kids I can't just move on so that made me feel truly 'deaf' for the first time in my life."

The couple runs a creative marketing services firm, Satdaya Studios near St. George, Utah, which helps clients increase their customer bases through events, websites and other marketing projects.

They also run VAME: Visual Arts Media & Entertainment, which is an association for deaf creative professionals, "with the goal of creating more job opportunities and discovering and recognizing talent," among those in the deaf and hard of hearing community, Whitworth said. "This is something we do to give back to the community."

Learning to communicate through ASL, speaking, writing and lip reading has given Whitworth and her husband more opportunity to communicate with people in both the hearing and deaf communities, and it has given them advantages in their self-run and owned business, as well as in communicating with their children.

Opening hearing ears

Communication opportunities haven't just been for the deaf community. More and more hearing people are learning sign language, opening up opportunities for interaction with people from a different culture and with unique experiences.

A report released in February from the Modern Language Association showed that enrollment in American Sign Language courses in U.S. universities and colleges had increased by 19 percent from 2009 to 2013. ASL is now the third most studied language behind Spanish and French, and displacing German to fourth place.

"I'm thrilled more people are learning sign language. It's great," Whitworth said. "There are benefits to it where basically it 'exercises' the visual center of the brain."

Educational and business-related opportunities increase for both the deaf and the hearing as more people learn to sign. However, it can be a sensitive issue in regards to some underqualified hearing people learning to sign who want to teach ASL to others, Whitworth said.

The number of students graduating with degrees in sign language and teaching ASL is also increasing, MLA reported. ASL is not simply a hobby people pick up easily that can be taught to others just as easily; ASL is a way of opening up connection between people from different cultures, a way to create more channels of communication.

"If hearing people can sign, it brings deaf and hearing people closer together," said Krentz, who started to lose his hearing at age 9. "It's not just learning a language but also having an attitude and desire to go out and meet people. If a hearing person has a good attitude, they are respectful of the deaf community and the language, that's what they need."

Some students will choose to learn sign language because they have a deaf relative or friend, while others are simply fascinated with the idea of a visual language, Krentz said. However, respecting and getting to understand deaf culture is when the language really bridges gaps for deaf and hearing people.

This is how many of the alumni Krentz has worked with have landed good jobs working in interpretation and instruction as they allow connections to be made and reach out to the deaf community.

"I think the language barrier between the deaf and the hearing cultures is of primary importance, because I know for a fact that if the language and the cultural differences are understood, then hearing people will not perceive the deaf as a disabled group," said Freeman King, an ASL instructor and director of the ASL/English Deaf Education division at Utah State University.

More than 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents, and two to three out of every 1,000 children in the U.S. are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both of their ears, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Over 5 percent of the world's population 360 million people are deaf, reports the World Health Organization.

"The deaf community is a socio-cultural group of people who are primarily visual learners, with their own traditions, culture, folklore that sets them apart," said King.

King said his department's goal is to help prepare those who want to teach those who are deaf, offering minors in ASL and ASL teaching. Those who want training as interpreters can enter other programs outside of the university.

"I think that society's perceptions of a deaf person is of a pathological nature that the deaf person is disabled," King said. "But it's interesting to note that the disabling comes from the attitudes of those who really do not understand the deaf individual or the deaf culture."

Unknown capability

For Cathy Haas, the only deaf professor at Stanford University, it is hard to imagine why people see the deaf as extremely limited in their abilities.

She was 2 years old when she became sick with scarlet fever and the disease took her ability to hear.

The setback didn't stop Haas' parents from helping her experience life like her two hearing brothers. But when she showed up at dance class or to join the swim team the response from coaches and teachers was the same: how do we help a deaf child do this? And her parents gave the same answer every time: show her, have patience, she can do it.

"It seems a lot of people don't really understand how much deaf people are capable of," Haas said. "There are a lot of deaf people who run businesses, restaurants. Maybe people think they are limited, I don't see it that way. I think it's very important for people to know deaf people are capable of quite a bit."

Haas spoke with the Deseret News through the use of video-phone technology, where she signed to an interpreter as the interpreter spoke into the phone. Because the interpreter is watching the signer, they are able to see the emotions of what they are saying and relay that.

Haas has been a professor in American Sign Language and linguistics programs for nearly 40 years, and is often met with a surprised reaction when she tells people what she does. She often uses Video Relay Services to counsel and meet with students who don't know ASL by communicating to an interpreter through video on the computer.

Communicating and thriving in a hearing world is entirely possible, no matter the educational route parents choose for their children, she said.

Although hearing loss can be a difficult thing for parents to absorb, when finding out that their children are deaf, parent shouldn't make more of it than that, Haas said.

"Try to not be in a panic and really grieve," she said. "If they're healthy otherwise, it's just an inability to hear."