There's no white-tipped cane to cue passers-by of a handicap; no wheelchair to indicate an affliction.
When you're deaf, there's only silence - and silence is invisible.Sue Gregory knows. She lives in the silent world of deafness - a world that can sometimes be lonely and cruel.
Gregory, 37, a graduate student at Utah State University studying the effects of hazardous waste, was born deaf and has struggled throughout her life to break free from the prejudices and misconceptions that are attached with deafness. She is one of 2 million Americans stricken with deafness, along with 13 million more who live with lesser hearing impairments. Hearing loss is the least recognized chronic health problem in the United States.
It is also one of the most difficult to live with because it is so easily overlooked by those with normal hearing.
Bonnie Clark, an instructor in communicative disorders at Utah State University, said unlike the blind, the deaf often cannot communicate with the public, which sometimes leaves the impression the deaf are stupid or mentally retarded.
"The deaf usually can't communicate verbally, so when it comes to the handicapped, the blind are easier to educate," Clark said. "They may have to read in Braille, but they can hear the sounds and can communicate auditorily. Educationally, they have the advantage."
But the problem seems to be getting better, she said.
"Deafness has become much more acceptable in society," Clark said. "We see the deaf in shows like Sesame Street and Children of a Lesser God. And we see more of the famous deaf in the spotlight all the time. There's not that same stigma that there used to be."
Clark said that socially, the hearing public has learned not to be shocked or embarrassed when someone communicates through sign language in public. More and more people are interested in learning sign language, which indicates an increased level of understanding.
When she began teaching sign language classes 15 years ago, Clark averaged 12 students per class. Today, her classes exceed 400 students, of which many are not hearing-impaired, just interested.
Educators face the challenge of finding enough teachers to educate Utah's 900 deaf or hearing-impaired students. Budget crunches and the lack of understanding have left public schools with few teachers able to provide students with the time and education needed. Clark said USU is currently the only Utah campus that provides teacher training, and even that program is being threatened with budgetary concerns.
Although strides have been made in providing the deaf with better educational opportunities, many obstacles remain.
Gregory is one of the few in the deaf community who has been able to break the boundaries of her silent world. But it hasn't been an easy road to travel.
When she graduated from high school in Kansas City, Mo., Gregory was unable to name the presidents of the United States or understand a newspaper. Her vocabulary was very limited and almost void of idiomatic expressions common to most hearing people. She left high school feeling isolated from the world, knowing it was going to be a tough battle to become accepted in society and gain meaningful employment.
Recognizing her limitations, Gregory was determined to become as "normal" as possible.
After high school, she hired an English teacher to teach her to properly read and write. It took 15 years of speech therapy, but Gregory went from a deaf person who once only uttered a few words a day to a deaf person who speaks English with perfect tone and inflection. Today, she credits her discipline, desire and determination for her accomplishments.
But as she is discovering, the real work has just begun.
Gregory is a firm believer in getting the deaf community to better themselves through "total communication" instead of relying on only sign language or only lip reading as sources of communication. Total communication allows a hearing-impaired person to learn signing, lip reading and speaking and writing skills in order to better blend into society and consider more promising employment and educational opportunities.
"We can eliminate a lot of confusion about society readily with total communication," Gregory said. "Instead, we try to camouflage our problems, like a painter painting over a portrait, especially in Utah."
As a child, Gregory was taught only the "oralist" method, which rejects the use of sign language and finger spelling. Oralists emphasize using technology such as hearing aids.
Like many parents of deaf children, Gregory said her parents "tried hard to teach me to act normal and look normal." Looking back on those efforts, she said it did a lot of harm psychologically and it has taken many years to learn to cope with the psychological aspects of the handicap.
And that is why she would like to see more hearing-impaired individuals learn the methods of total communication.
Gregory said with better teaching methods, especially in Utah where oralism is favored, hearing-impaired individuals can learn much more about the society in which they live.
"It's sad that in Utah many deaf people cannot support themselves because they have not received the proper education or the right training," Gregory said. "Many deaf people are barely functionally literate because they aren't taught to learn properly. If I had sign language as well as speaking in high school, I wouldn't have had the problems I did."
Another major problem that the deaf face is understanding the idiomatic phrases and gestures that many hearing people take for granted. Children learn 95 percent of these phrases and gestures through watching parents and through listening to others.
"To the deaf, it just doesn't make sense," Gregory said.
While participating in a class for the deaf, Gregory had the opportunity to learn the proper techniques of dining at a restaurant. Many restaurant behaviors, such as placing a napkin on one's lap or choosing which piece of silverware to use, come second nature to many hearing individuals because it has been culturally learned through being told to do so from an early age and through observing the behavior of others. To the deaf, however, the gestures seem foreign without understanding why they are being done.
"It was one of the most educational opportunities I've had," Gregory said. "You have to realize that the deaf do not have so-called `structured thinking.' There's a subtle type of dimension of language with a limited library of expression. We don't have the benefit of that cultural understanding about our society that's learned through cultural thought forms."
Not one to stand by as the world marches past, Gregory became involved in a hearing-ear dog program based in Henderson, Colo., International Hearing Dog, Inc.
Recognizing that she could overcome even more obstacles with the help of a hearing-ear dog, Gregory worked with Rover, a poodle-cocker spaniel mix, in teaching him to hear for her.
But it has not been without problems.
Gregory soon learned that although hearing-ear dogs have the same legal rights as seeing-eye dogs for the blind, the public is generally unaware of those rights. She has been asked to leave public buildings and transportation a number of times because it's not immediately recognizable that Rover is a working dog and not a pet.
Unlike the familiar harness worn by seeing-eye dogs, hearing-ear dogs can be recognized only by a bright orange collar and leash that is not easily identifiable. And because hearing-ear dogs don't require the strength or height associated with the seeing-eye German shepherds, hearing ear dogs are usually mutts. This only makes it more difficult to explain to restaurant owners and school officials why the animal has been brought on to the premises.
Gregory carries identification cards for both herself and Rover. The cards explain legal rights and responsibilities. But they don't prevent the sometimes nasty looks and offensive remarks made by people unaware that Gregory is deaf.
With the aid of Rover, Gregory has been able to function pretty much as a hearing person. By watching closely, Rover's body movements guide her to specific actions that might otherwise place her in danger.
For example, while walking across a busy intersection on campus last year, Gregory became confused when other students either began to race across the street or stop walking altogether. Rover led her back to the curb of the crosswalk. A moment later, two fire engines raced past with sirens blaring and lights flashing. Without Rover, Gregory would have been oblivious to the potential danger approaching.
"He can hear for me - Rover's an auditory and sensory instrument," Gregory said. "He allows me to be aware of certain things in the environment that otherwise I wouldn't recognize. With him, I don't have to rely on someone else, he allows me independence. Rover has brought down the level of the handicap."
Ironically, Gregory's older deaf sister was killed as a child when she was unable to hear the car horn of an approaching vehicle while crossing the street.
Rover has been Gregory's partner since last September, and since that time, she has been able to enjoy activities that were once prohibitive because of her handicap.
A favorite activity of outdoor jogging used to terrify her because she wasn't able to determine if vehicles were traveling too close or if other dangers were present. Today, Gregory can be seen jogging near campus with Rover pulling her to the side of the road if large trucks are approaching or car horns are honking.
Problems for the deaf aren't limited to activities outside the home, however.
Gregory recalls feeling uncomfortable as a child among her own family members. She said it was difficult to feel a part of the family when she was not verbally understood and family members found it difficult to seek help in understanding her. Thirty years ago, little help was available for the deaf and few efforts were made to provide education or employment opportunities.
Gregory said things haven't changed much in 30 years.
"It's still hard for families to admit a child is deaf," she said."Most deaf people still don't feel comfortable in their own home where they aren't understood - they don't feel part of the family even though they are loved and cared about."