Professor says being deaf is not a handicap

By Hannah Neumann
Staff Writer

While people who speak multiple languages are often thought of as diverse, people who use American Sign Language are sometimes thought of as disabled, a perception the deaf community would like to change.

“Being disabled or handicapped would mean that you were stuck,” said Dr. Larry Umberger, American Sign Language lab assistant, through interpreters Shirley Gerhardt and Kris Pullin. “When people say to me ‘you can’t talk’ and look at me as though I have a disability, I say ‘well you can’t sign so I guess you’re signing-impaired.’”

Umberger said one of the greatest factors that drew him to Baylor originally was the equality he felt on campus and in the department.

“I really appreciate feeling like an equal professional here,” Umberger said. “The other three teachers in the department sign and other places don’t always have that luxury. If I’m needing interpreter services or access to something, I’m able to get it and those considerations came to mind when I was considering whether to work for Baylor or not.”

Umberger said another factor that contributed to his interest in Baylor was the abundant opportunity surrounding campus for student involvement in the deaf community.

“Students really get excited about the language and the deaf community that we offer here,” he said. “They can teach deaf children, they can offer support in the community even as a volunteer and there are activities and events in the deaf community here in Waco that they can attend. These experiences they can have at Baylor can affect their view of the deaf community and the people they are serving later on in their field.”

Umberger and his wife Paula Umberger, who is also deaf, have two daughters, Sophia and Alissa, ages 18 and 15 respectively. Both of their children can hear, but for them, sign language has been a part of life since birth and the use of it is normal. They said there is one major challenge they face as Children of Deaf Adults, or CODAs.

“People just ask stupid questions and that’s the most frustrating thing we deal with,” Sophia said. “People ask if they can read or drive. Someone asked my sister why my parents have mouths, and I don’t understand what makes someone ask a question like that.”

Alissa said a common question people ask her and Sophia is what it’s like to have deaf parents.

“To us it’s just normal,” said Alissa. “It’s how we live. The only other problem is like if I’m home alone with my parents and I’m in the bathroom with no toilet paper. That’s when you know the real struggle there. But I mean we just learned to take our phones to the bathroom and we just text until someone brings toilet paper.”

Umberger said there are specific things associated with deaf culture that make it their culture such as language, norms, the values and traditions passed from one generation to the next. While people often approach Deaf Awareness Week from a medical perspective, the true purpose lies in education of the culture.

“As a deaf community, we feel there is a great division between the two because one is a scientific approach while the other is our life,” Umberger said. “We want to expose people not just to sign language but to the deaf culture itself.”

Umberger said if he had to option to hear, he wouldn’t have the desire to act on it because in a sense he would feel as though he were betraying his deaf culture and community.

“My language is part of who I am. I feel a strong bond with the deaf community, and I don’t want to change my identity. I am perfectly happy with who I am,” he said.

 

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