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Resources, culture make Rochester a draw for many in deaf community

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Many people who come to Rochester to attend RIT's National Technical Institute for the Deaf end up sticking around because of the area's culture.

At Malik Evans' second news conference as Rochester mayor, there was something deliberate about the presentation at City Hall: A man was using American Sign Language to translate Evans' speech and the Q&A with the media.

City communications director Barbara Pierce said we should expect more of this.

"Our intention is also to find other ways to expand access and understanding," Pierce said. "And that'll include subtitles, captions, it'll include translations wherever we can."

It's not the first time interpreters have been enlisted to relay messages from politicians.

Former Mayor Lovely Warren and Monroe County Executive Adam Bello incorporated them over the last few years. And at businesses and cultural institutions around the Rochester region, accommodations are more common than in other parts of the country.

The Frederick Douglass Greater Rochester International Airport, for example, received two awards for its dedication to the concepts in 2018 and 2019. Hearing passengers might miss the LED color lights that signal arrivals and departures and emergencies, but to people like Arlene Sankey, who is deaf, things like that mean a lot.

"I'm from the South and moving to the East Coast was a different story and a different culture," Sankey said.

"We have doctors who are deaf. We have doctors who sign. Movies have open captioning on a regular basis. I don't have to fight for that."
Arlene Sankey

Speaking through an interpreter Sankey said she came to Rochester from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to attend RIT's National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID). Sankey said she didn't have a deaf friend until she was in high school and learned sign language. When she moved to Rochester, she said, her world got bigger.

"When I got to campus, I was amazed," Sankey said. "There were hundreds, if not thousands, of deaf people everywhere — signing, banging on the tables, yelling to get attention. I hadn't seen that kind of deaf culture before with my own eyes."

Sankey graduated in 1993 and hasn't left the area since. She said the influence of that center of deaf culture bleeds through to the larger community.

"We have doctors who are deaf. We have doctors who sign. Movies have open captioning on a regular basis. I don't have to fight for that," she said. "When we go someplace, there will be transcripts available if we request them. When I go home to visit my parents, I don't have those options."

The latest census data shows there are around 45,000 deaf or hard of hearing residents in the Rochester region. RIT's Richard Dirmyer said that's about 3.7% of the population, making it among the largest in the nation, comparable to cities like Austin, Texas, or Charlotte, North Carolina, or Columbus, Ohio.

Other centers of deaf populations are in places with universities like RIT, with programs dedicated to the population. Since the census does not ask explicitly about American Sign Language, Meyer cautioned that it's hard to know how many people use it to communicate.

"Are we capturing folks who have lost their hearing due to old age -- who would not identify as deaf or hard of hearing from the identity side of things -- versus the sort of clinical side of things," he said.

Regardless of exactly how big the population is, Rochester remains a draw for people like Ceasar Jones, a Coloradan, who graduated from RIT in 2016. Through an interpreter, he said living in the region makes his life easier.

"It makes life more normal," Jones said. "You know, that might be a kind of strange thing to hear. But we're lucky to have an area where many families sign you know many people know about deaf culture, and they understand more of what it takes for people to just have a normal regular life."

This story is reported from WXXI’s Inclusion Desk and is part of Dialogue on Disability Week -- a partnership between WXXI and Al Sigl Community of Agencies -- in conjunction with the Herman and Margaret Schwartz Community Series.

James Brown is a reporter with WXXI News. James previously spent a decade in marketing communications, while freelance writing for CITY Newspaper. While at CITY, his reporting focused primarily on arts and entertainment.