Ways of seeing: Hidden in plain sight

A unique community of 10,000-15,000 Vermonters is scattered throughout our state. Its vibrant culture centers around its engaging language. However, this community is often marginalized, misunderstood and forgotten. Its young people can be particularly isolated. Deaf Vermonters, whose contributions help support our state, would benefit from greater acknowledgment and allocation of resources.
A recent One World Library Project event in Bristol offered the opportunity to learn about Vermont’s Deaf community. “Vermont’s Deaf Culture: Building Bridges Through Theater” drew a strong turnout from the Deaf community and its advocates, some of whom drove long distances for the presentation and discussion.
Presenter Don Petit-Homme encouraged audience members to consider Deaf neighbors in our daily lives. Deaf since birth, Petit-Homme performed in the Deaf Theater in college and continues to enjoy taking to the stage. Communicating through American Sign Language (ASL) and interpreters, Petit-Homme explained that Deafness is part of his identity, not a disability that needs fixing, an attitude often misunderstood by the hearing community. This lack of understanding results in challenges faced by Deaf Vermonters.
Petit-Homme explained that individuals living in rural areas are often the only Deaf person in their town, creating social isolation. Neighbors may wave and smile on the street, but deeper connections are rare. The trend in recent decades to mainstream Deaf students likewise results in their social isolation, as communication with hearing and speaking classmates is limited, particularly as children get older. Petit-Homme attended schools for the Deaf from grade school through college. He pointed out that attending a school with Deaf peers is the “least restrictive environment” for a Deaf child, providing full access to social integration and the acquisition of ASL, the language of Deaf Americans.
As a result of declining enrollment due to mainstreaming, Vermont’s only school for the Deaf, the Austine School in Brattleboro, closed its doors in 2014. Petit-Homme and many other Deaf Vermonters lobbied unsuccessfully to keep it open. This was a huge loss. Not only was Austine a school; it was also a central hub and resource for the entire Deaf community of Vermont. At present, there remains a huge gap in services.
A controversial topic addressed during the lively follow-up discussion is the increasing popularity of cochlear implants (CIs). Often seen by the public as a cure for deafness, CIs are viewed quite differently by at least some Deaf individuals, particularly those who were born Deaf. While CIs offer broader opportunities and relationships for some, others find that the amount of time and effort it takes to adjust to their electronic version of sound creates a great deal of stress without the promised benefits.
There are many ways the hearing community can reach out to Deaf neighbors. Petit-Homme suggests we start by making an effort to connect and communicate with Deaf acquaintances. Use pantomime. Write on a note pad. Try texting. Even better, learn basic ASL vocabulary and phrases on YouTube. ASL is an expressive and fun language, with lots of opportunities to add playful body language. Don’t be shy. As Petit-Homme says, “We don’t bite.”
Co-presenter Julia Kitonis, who is not Deaf, confirmed that access is possible when we open the door. Currently a freshman at UVM, Kitonis learned sign language online and directed “Songs for a New World” as a senior project in high school. The cast, which included Petit-Homme, comprised both hearing and Deaf performers. The production built bridges for actors as well as audience members. Kitonis points out, “There were members of the cast who knew no sign and they [and Deaf cast members] still got along very well. Humans find amazing ways to communicate.”
The film Deaf Jam, about a group of slam poets in the Deaf community, offers an inspiring and upbeat glimpse into this fascinating culture. It can be signed out at the Lawrence Memorial Library. It may inspire you to learn some sign language.

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