Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Living in a silent world

Living in a silent world

avid Sanderson, and his wife, Barbara, live on the shores of Silver Lake in Fenton and enjoy an active lifestyle on the water — but they’ve never heard the soothing sounds of the lake or the early morning bird calls signaling the beginning of a new day.

Both of the Sandersons have been deaf since birth, but it hasn’t stopped them from doing anything in life they’ve wanted to achieve — including raising three successful daughters blessed with acute hearing, who are just as comfortable in the deaf world as they are in the hearing world.

As residents of Fenton since 1989, the Sandersons love and appreciate small-town living, compared to California where David was born and raised.

“We chose to live in Fenton because of the recreational opportunities here and its family orientation. We know everyone here — everyone at The Home Depot knows me by name,” said Sanderson, with the help of American Sign Language and interpreter Carie Sarver at the Michigan School of Deaf, where he is in his fifth year as superintendent.

“We do everything that the hearing population does. We just speak a different language,” said Sanderson. His expressive movements and quick fingers bring a new appreciation of the importance of visual cues in the life of a deaf person. “Our language comes from our eyes. It’s acquired visually, not auditorially. That’s the only difference.”

This common language and life experience is often what brings deaf people together, both in marriage and in friendships. “About 95 percent of deaf people marry other deaf people,” said Sanderson, who met Barbara when they were both attending Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., the nation’s only deaf, liberal arts college.

Linden residents David and Debby Dietch met in college, too, when both were attending the National Technical Institute for the Deaf on the Rochester ITT campus in Rochester, N.Y.

Debby, 53, was a “rubella baby,” whose deafness wasn’t diagnosed until she was 2 years old. She was sent to an oral deaf school, before, sign language was taught in the classroom. “I learned sign language while riding the bus with Michigan School for the Deaf students,” recalled Debby. She was mainstreamed into regular school in seventh grade, but was the only deaf student in her high school class.

“I’ve always been a part of both the deaf community and the hearing population, because I came home every day to a family who could hear,” said Debby. “My mom encouraged speech therapy for years when I was a child, so I learned to speak.” In fact, Debby is so well spoken, people in work or social situations often forget that she is deaf. “I still miss a lot in meetings if I don’t have an interpreter,” she said.

After being downsized from her work at the Communication Access Center on the Michigan School for the Deaf campus and a career at The State Bank in Fenton, she’s attending college to complete her bachelor’s degree in business administration. She’s hoping to work in disability services at the college level.

David, 52, was born deaf from a congenital defect. He spent all of his childhood attending schools for the deaf. He has been a professional tool and die maker for more than 30 years, the last 19 at Century Tool in Fenton.

He is also able to speak, but can best be understood face-to-face, at a close range. He finds it easiest to communicate if someone looks right at him so he can read lips, unless they know sign language. The couple has three hearing daughters, Jennifer, 28, Ashley, 24 and Stacy, 23, all of whom work with their dad to help him with grammar and writing. Both of these skills are weak.

Because communication tends to be easier among those who are deaf or “hard of hearing” (the preferred expression, as opposed to “hearing impaired”), those in the deaf community tend to socialize together. The Flint Area Deaf Club provides a social outlet, and many couples like to socialize on Friday night at restaurants with friends.

Just as the hearing community has a wide range of ability in verbal and written skills, there is a vast range of levels in deafness, which determine how people choose to communicate. Some people are totally deaf, and cannot hear any sound at all and are not helped by a hearing instrument. Others, like the Dietchs, are able to speak and hear slightly, with the help of a hearing aid.

What those in the deaf community appreciate most of all is patience. “A deaf person will do his or her best to let a hearing person know how to communicate — whether by writing a note, lip reading, gesturing, etc.,” said Sanderson. “We know how to communicate. It’s just a different language than yours.”