Monday, March 01, 2010

Speak easy, the deaf will understand

Speak easy, the deaf will understand

Kaye Hughes didn't have to hear the phone ring. Muffy would let her know.

Hughes' cat would touch her cheek when someone called. And when the doorbell rang, Muffy pawed Hughes' shoulder.

"The funny thing is, she didn't start doing it until after my husband died — explain that," said Hughes, who has a phone that flashes a light when calls come in. Otherwise, she wouldn't know.

Hughes is among the one in every 10 people who are hard of hearing, according to Total Source for Hearing-loss and Access. A United Way nonprofit agency, TSHA provides comprehensive services to the deaf and hard of hearing throughout Oklahoma — 27,640 in 2008 alone.

One of the organization's crucial functions is offering a support system — a lifeline, in some cases — to a community of individuals who often feel isolated because of their disability.

To continue offering that lifeline, TSHA will host its only annual fundraiser, "Souper Sunday," at the SpiritBank Event Center. More than 20 local restaurants will be serving delicious treats, and a silent auction will be held.

Cody Francisco will be going, as he has the last 20 years. He enjoys the variety of soups, which introduce him to restaurants he's yet to visit. But more importantly, he enjoys seeing hearing and deaf individuals interact with each other, said Francisco, who is deaf.

Of the one in 10 people who have hearing loss, one in six of those are deaf individuals, said Diana Higgins, spokeswoman for TSHA. Also, among the 65-and-older population, almost one in three has a hearing loss.

"So if hearing loss doesn't touch you or someone you love now, chances are good that one day it will," Higgins said.

Deaf, not blind

"Sometimes, I feel like I have to wear a name tag that says, 'My name is D-E-A-F," said Francisco, who has been deaf since childhood.

Growing up, "it was all about being normal," he said. As a young student, the focus was on his speech so he could function in a hearing world. He didn't even have an interpreter until his sixth-grade year — whereupon his grades improved dramatically.

"Some people think 'deaf and dumb,' " he said.

Some seem surprised he went to college. For the record, he has a bachelor's degree in social work and a master's in counseling from Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. He went to school there because they have a mainstream program with the National Technical Institute for the Deaf.

By the way, being deaf doesn't mean he can't see. After moving back to Tulsa from New York, he pulled into a Taco Bell drive-through and right on to the second pick-up window. He gestured that he couldn't hear to an employee, who retrieved the restaurant's manager. More gestures followed, the guy left for a moment and came back with a Braille menu — for Francisco, who was sitting behind the wheel of a car.

Don't get him started on the Mexican restaurant experience when he advised management that 12 hearing-impaired people would be dining there — and all 12 showed up to see Braille menus set at the table.

And when you run into him dining out, "talk normally," he said. We learned that lesson the hard way — overemphasizing our pronunciation during the interview, as if that helped. For the record, it doesn't.

"I love it when people say, 'You don't look deaf,' " she said. "How the heck am I supposed to look?"

Hughes, who wears a hearing aid that you wouldn't be able to see because of how she wears her hair, started experiencing hearing loss when she was 38, she said. She'd answer questions incorrectly, and some of her friends started telling her she had changed.

"Because I can't hear, I'm not as social as I used to be because I can't follow everyone's conversation," she said. In group situations, "when they know you can't hear, they don't direct anything at you. They talk to everyone but you."

Keeping up with conversations at family events, church groups or company gatherings where everyone is hearing is taxing.

"Usually, within five minutes of an event, I'm ready to leave because I can't keep up with everyone's talking overlapping and saying random things," Francisco said.

This can lead to feelings of isolation, as some folks with hearing loss don't have a place to go, Hughes said. All you have is someone else who's been in the same situation.

That's where TSHA comes in, providing not only educational support groups and social opportunities for those with hearing loss, but a bridge between their world and the hearing one.

Giving a voice
"TSHA helps the hearing community hear the voice of the deaf community," Higgins said. They advocate for the deaf man who sat in jail for days without being told why he was held, and the deaf hospital patient who doesn't know what the doctors around her are saying.

The agency can provide interpreting services that will provide opportunities to know and understand everything going on, like workshops or concerts, Francisco said.

They also offer laid-back and fun sign classes, he continued. For example, Francisco's neighbors know he's deaf, so they're aware he can't hear conversations during the summer while they're all hanging out at the neighborhood pool.

But thanks to TSHA, his neighbors are able to take sign classes, which helps Francisco feel like a part of his own neighborhood community.

He and Hughes lend their hands, too. Hughes, for instance, helps Higgins lead the Tulsa Hearing Helpers group 10-11:30 a.m. the second Thursday of each month, she said. Speakers are scheduled, and anyone can attend to discuss a problem they have — be they hearing or not.

Soon, Francisco will be a community outreach specialist for the state, traveling Oklahoma to educate people about deaf services and culture, he said. He'll also teach the deaf and hard of hearing about their rights.

"Just because I'm deaf doesn't mean I can't do," he said. "It's not as easy as it seems, but we work really hard living in this hearing world."

Souper Sunday

What: TSHA fundraiser with soups from local restaurants, plus silent auction

When: 3:30-6 p.m. March 7

Where: SpiritBank Event Center, 10441 S. Regal Blvd.

Tickets: $20 in advance for 12 and older, $10, children 6-11; free for 5 and younger. Tickets at door $23. To reserve ticket in advance, call 832-8742.