September is Deaf Awareness Month, and Deaf Awareness Week is observed throughout the last full week of September to commemorate the first World Congress of the World Federation of the Deaf, which took place in September 1951.
But for the staff and board of directors of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services in Grand Rapids, every day, week, month and year are about deaf awareness.
The event included resource tables, games, food and a chance for the local Deaf community to socialize and celebrate. (D&HHS)
“Deafness is the least recognized disability,” says D&HHS executive director Deb Atwood. “But for almost three decades now we have worked quietly behind the scenes, advocating for the deaf, the deafblind and the hard of hearing in pursuit of all of life’s opportunities.”
Gathering in new space
Part of that advocacy took place Sept. 28 when D&HHS hosted a celebration at its new home in the Special Olympics of Michigan building to mark the conclusion of Deaf Awareness Month.
The event, which drew nearly 150 people, included resource tables, games, food and a chance for the local Deaf community to socialize and celebrate.
Local organizations had display tables with information and resources for attendees. (D&HHS)
In a large room at D&HHS’s new home at the SOMI Unified Sports and Inclusion Center, attendees gathered, excitedly catching up with old acquaintances and making new friends, as smiles and laughter filled the room.
Along the perimeter of the room, a number of local organizations had display tables with information and resources for attendees. Vendors and sponsors included:
• The Division on Deaf, DeafBlind, and Hard of Hearing
• KISD/Northview Public Schools
• Michigan RID
• Sorenson/ CaptionCall
• Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired
• Wyoming Lions Club
• Hear Michigan
A spirit of play and community filled the air inside and outside the venue, as children and their parents played games while D&HHS staff and board members mingled and greeted attendees and vendors.
A child's face is painted at the D&HHS event. (D&HHS)
Nancy Piersma, D&HHS community education and advocacy coordinator, described the gathering as an opportunity where Deaf people could come with a sense of pride about their language and culture.
“It is good to have the hearing world, including hearing family, friends and co-workers, be able to learn about the culture, language and history of the Deaf,” Piersma says.
“Educating and raising awareness of our deaf, deafblind, and hard of hearing communities is at the forefront of what we do,” says Atwood. “This was one more opportunity to raise awareness and to celebrate together.”
The gathering was an opportunity where Deaf people could come with a sense of pride about their language and culture. (D&HHS)
D&HHS board member Mickey Carolan is a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) and working on a memoir of his life as the son of two deaf parents. He said he appreciates the work of D&HHS and the designation of September as Deaf Awareness Month.
He spoke movingly about growing up in the Deaf community and how gatherings similar to the one hosted by D&HHS were formative experiences in his childhood.
“Anytime we can bring more visibility and awareness around the issues that face the deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing, that’s a good thing,” Carolan says. “My parents are my two biggest heroes. It’s one of the reasons I wrote my book. I’m all about putting the spotlight on the community I grew up in.”
A a number of local organizations had display tables with information and resources for attendees. (D&HHS)
Atwood said estimates show about 13% of the U.S. is deaf or hard of hearing. More than 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents.
D&HHS believes in the power of American Sign Language as a tool by which deaf children and their families can communicate, offering numerous ASL classes in person and online. But there is no universal sign language, with anywhere between 100 and 300 sign languages in use around the world.
“That’s just one more misconception about the deaf,” Atwood says. “There are many, but we are working every day to help clear them up. We’ll keep doing so in September, but beyond that, we’re here for the long haul and will continue this work all year long.”
This article is a part of the multi-year series Disability Inclusion, exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.
Enjoy this story? Sign up
for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.