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Being deaf in Juneau - difficult but getting better
Special telephonic and other communications aids are hard to come by in a town with only 50 deaf residents


When she had an asthma attack and couldn't breathe one morning in January 1984, Pamela Mueller-Guy had to leave her son, who was only a few months old, at home. She crawled to her neighbor's house for help. She couldn't call 911, because she was deaf. There were few telecommunication devices for the deaf (TDD) available in Juneau.

"I was desperate," Mueller-Guy said. "My next-door neighbor wasn't home. I had to crawl two trailers down for help."

But if the same situation happens again today, Mueller-Guy can seek help by using her TDD or Sprint Video Relay. A communication assistant could see her from a Web camera on top of her computer.

Thanks to the advances of technologies and growing awareness of the needs of people with disabilities, communication with the hearing has become much easier for deaf people in Juneau than it used to be.

Because of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, the Juneau International Airport and the Juneau City Hall are now equipped with TDDs. Alaska Relay, a telecommunication service for the hearing-impaired, allows a deaf person to talk to a hearing person through an assistant. The assistant types the conversation to the deaf person and reads the conversation to the hearing person.

Businesses have also learned to recognize deaf people's needs.

Last October, Mueller-Guy collected almost 200 signatures from the deaf and disabled community and succeeded in persuading Glacier Cinema to air open-captioned films so deaf people wouldn't need to wait for months for a film to come out on DVD.

Despite the progress, there remain a lot of hurdles to overcome.

Although the Americans with Disabilities Act requires hotels to provide deaf guests with such devices as a telephone signaler, tele-caption decoder and visual smoke detector, few hotels in town have these devices, said Ann Park, who sits on the city's ADA Board.

Mueller-Guy, also a member of the city's ADA Board, said the courts need to improve their earphones for the deaf. The earphones often interfere with deaf people's hearing aids and make communication even more difficult.

Becky Harrington, who became deaf at age 20, said most apartments and public places don't allow pets. But many deaf people rely on their service dogs in their daily life. Her 7-year-old golden retriever pushes her with its nose whenever the doorbell or the phone rings.

In addition to improvement in infrastructure, educating the hearing about deaf culture is equally important.

?In the past, when police officers pulled deaf people over, they didn?t know how to communicate with them so they just screamed louder, which didn?t help at all,? said Mueller-Guy, who provides annual training to firefighters and police officers.

Deaf people mainly use American Sign Language ? which has its unique syntax and vocabulary ? as their primary means of communication. They normally have little or no exposure to English. As a result, English is like their second language.

?Assuming that a deaf person knows English is incorrect,? said Joel Bergsbaken, a specialist in working with the deaf. ?It?s better to communicate visually.?

To compensate for their loss of hearing, deaf people develop keener senses of observation, feeling, taste and smell. Bergsbaken said people sometimes label deaf people as uninterested, insubordinate or anti-social, because they don?t seem to be in sync with everyone else.

?What is difficult for people to understand is that we get a lot of information by overhearing. A deaf person only has information he is able to see or someone makes a special effort to tell him,? Bergsbaken said. ?It?s like they are chronically out of the loop.? One challenge for Juneau?s deaf community results from its small population.

There are about 6,000 people that are hard of hearing in Alaska. Anchorage has the biggest deaf population, because the Alaska State School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing is there. In Juneau, there are probably 50 deaf people.

?The number might be higher, because some people don?t need help or don?t want to be involved,? said Mueller-Guy, a deaf service coordinator and board member for Alaska Relay. For the best education for their children, many Juneau parents send their children to Anchorage.

?I didn?t want him to be so far away, but Anchorage has the most hearing-impaired projects in the state,? said Ann Johnson, whose deaf son, Brian, finished his high school education in Anchorage. During the first seven years when Brian was studying in Anchorage, Johnson flew back and forth until he was old enough to take a plane himself.

Because Juneau?s deaf population is small, it?s hard to convince business owners to accommodate their needs. The open-captioned movies at Glacier Cinema have temporarily stopped airing during summertime because of low turnout rate.

As communication works both ways, deaf people are taking the initiative to engage hearing people in their world.

When he returned to Juneau four years ago, Brian Johnson made CD-ROM resumes for potential employers to let them know his abilities and limitations. He has worked at Valley Lumber for three years. Coworkers communicate with him with the simple signs they learned from the CD-ROM. Customers communicate with him by gesturing or writing on a notebook.

Many American Sign Languages classes are offered free. People who want to practice American Sign Language gather every Friday for a silent lunch.

?Helen Keller said her blindness separates her from things, whereas her deafness separates her from people,? Mueller-Guy said. ?Deaf people have an invisible handicap that is often overlooked compared to other disabilities. Communication is a vital component that deaf people have to confront on a daily basis.?

Harrington, who teaches American Sign Language, said she would like to see more hearing people try to understand them.

?It?s a daily struggle for me to read lips, to practice my speech to accommodate the hearing,? she said. ?So we appreciate any efforts hearing people make to communicate with us. Hopefully, we can meet in the middle of the road,? she said.



Help Kids Hear is a site dedicated to helping parents of deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) children. We are parents of hard of hearing kids and simply want to "give back" to the community. We welcome your comments, questions & suggestions. Please drop us a note at