PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla.-- According to the most recent Census, about 1 in 50 people living in Florida are deaf or hard of hearing. NewsChannel 5 Anchor Ashleigh Walters has been learning American Sign Language for the last year and she shares the opportunity to bridge gaps between the worlds of the hearing and the deaf.
Beth Wagmeister is the Director of Deaf Services at Gulfstream Goodwill. She has devoted her life and career to encouraging people who are deaf to advocate for themselves. She is also devoted to opening up the rest of the world to possibilities for working and socializing with people who are deaf.
Cara DiGiovanni is on Wagmeister's team. The pair has been teaching NewsChannel 5 Anchor Ashleigh Walters A.S.L. or American Sign Language.
Walters started learning A.S.L. for personal enrichment, but quickly, it became a mission fueled by people across the community and the world who believed her efforts could carry a message for the greater good.
Technology and social media have allowed opportunities in the deaf culture to blossom. Walters learned the depth of the connection in the deaf community once she started posting videos in A.S.L. to Facebook. The videos were shared hundreds, then thousands of times, ultimately reaching millions of people from at least five continents. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with people encouraging Walters to continue learning, offering to help her learn, sharing resources with her, and sending information that would enhance her understanding of deaf life.
"We have a very positive attitude because you're willing to work with us, and you're not negative, you respect our community. We are very welcoming, we welcome you to our world," signed DiGiovanni.
Deafness and American Sign Language each have a large number of misconceptions. For example, no one form of sign language is universal. While people who sign are often able to find ways to communicate with others while they travel to other countries, there are various languages, like British Sign Language, which is different from ASL.
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) offers numerous resources.
After a year of taking classes and practicing A.S.L., Walters had her first lunch communicating entirely in sign language.
Walters, Wagmeister and DiGiovanni went to Nick's Diner in West Palm Beach. At first they were seated at a booth, but Wagmeister and DiGiovanni explained a round table would work better. The trio would be able to see each other sign more easily at a table without a large centerpiece. Signing with your mouth full is just fine. It turns out, A.S.L. is also a great tool under water, from a distance in a noisy room and through closed windows.
DiGiovanni is deaf, and capable of reading lips. The ability to read lips is not standard among the deaf, everybody is different. She explained at lunch that at various restaurants, she has experienced waiters who are too nervous to interrupt a deaf conversation to take an order. In addition, since she reads lips, there are times a waiter will expect her to communicate for the whole table. People who are deaf must be patient to work with the hearing world that is not always understanding, nor accepting, of the difference.
"It's not just sentences, it's culture, it's everything. It's a whole culture," signed DiGiovanni.
People who are deaf must understand their rights and advocate for themselves. The unemployment rate among people with hearing differences is higher than average. Many people in the deaf community complain they are often denied interpreters they should be guaranteed under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Wagmeister suggests people advocate for themselves by taking notes at times they struggle with issues of discrimination.
"If they've been told they can't have an interpreter in a doctors setting or in a hospital setting, or even going to the bank. Or to buy a car. Anywhere that hearing people can go, deaf people can go and they should have access to communication. So it's really important for deaf people to advocate for themself, don't accept 'no,'" Wagmeister said.
Wagmeister recalls a time early in his career, when she lived next to a woman who was deaf. The woman relied on Wagmeister to help her communicate to the hearing world.
"Her kid was bleeding one day and she couldn't even communicate because she couldn't even call 911. Because she couldn't communicate so she didn't realize that if you call they're still going to come," Wagmeister said.
There is another struggle that can face some in the deaf community.
NIDCD reports 90% of people who are deaf have two hearing parents. The overwhelming majority of those parents don't know and may not learn sign language. Only 4% of children have two deaf parents.
"Some parents just really don't know what to do," DiGiovanni signed.
Children in these situations can face a lag in education and understanding of the world as a result.
"Some parents are willing and they are very open minded, they learn sign. And some are very resistant. It just depends," DiGiovanni signed.
DiGiovanni is an exception, she is a fifth generation deaf person with at least 50 members of her family who are deaf. Her mother is a teacher who stressed self-advocating to DiGiovanni and her siblings. She grew up in world blended with ASL and hearing friends who learned to sign.
"My parents really had me feel empowered. To make decisions for myself. To advocate," she signed.