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The number of people in the Deaf community in the Chicago metropolitan area is difficult to gauge accurately because no reliable numbers of Deaf and hard of hearing (HOH) people exist. State of Illinois Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission estimates put the number of people suffering from hearing loss in the Chicago metro area at over 800 thousand (2010). While Chicago has a thriving Deaf community, there are very few greater social accommodations in place to serve it. This is due to factors including: lack of disability data in federal research, ongoing debate over the legitimacy of American Sign Language (ASL), and communication difficulties resulting from culture and education issues. Chicago is considered a "Deaf-friendly" (Rains, 2009) city, but as the population grows to more than one million Deaf and HOH people in Illinois (State of Illinois Deaf & Hard of Hearing Commission, 2010), concentrated in Chicagoland, it is clear that social support as a whole for this special population is just barely in place.
Deaf Chicago: The Struggle for Language Legitimacy and Social Inclusion
Chicago, Illinois is the third largest city in the United States after New York City, New York and Los Angeles, California and was the second largest for most of the twentieth century. The population within the city limits was 2,896,016 as of the 2000 US census (US Census Bureau, n.d.), with a population of approximately ten million in the Chicago metro area, or Chicagoland. Known for its diversity and extremes in culture, politics, and socioeconomic status, Chicago is an important transportation, manufacturing and financial hub as well as an innovator in social work and city planning (City of Chicago, 2010).
Chicago became a city in 1837, about 70 years after the first non-native settler arrived. Previous to European settlement, the Native American tribes of Potawatomi, Miami, Sauk and Fox inhabited the area. Chicago grew rapidly over the years, building railroads and a canal connecting the Great Lakes waterway to the Mississippi River and steadily becoming a leader in commerce. In 1871, the blossoming city was devastated by the Great Chicago Fire, which reduced a third of the city to ashes, including the central business district (City of Chicago, 2010).
As Chicago started to rebuild after the disaster, a spirit of perseverance and pride among Chicagoans started to emerge as business leaders, residents, and lawmakers determined to rebuild Chicago bigger and better. Chicago was the first city in the world to build a skyscraper in 1885, a testament to the resilience and powerful desire of the city to not only survive, but excel (City of Chicago, 2010). Because of its central location, aggressive industries providing jobs, and above-average social attitude as a whole, the City of Chicago has attracted many minority populations and as a result there are starkly diverse neighborhoods throughout the city.
The Chicago metro area, or Chicagoland, which includes the city of Chicago and its suburbs as well as the cities of Joliet and Naperville, Illinois, has a population hovering around ten million as of the last census in 2000. According to The State of Illinois Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission website, the standard method of estimating Deaf and HOH population is to calculate 8.6% of the given population group, a method developed by the Gallaudet University Research Institute, (2010). Using this formula, an estimated 860,000 people in the Chicagoland metro area are Deaf or HOH.
Chicago Deaf Community and the US Census
The most recent data on the minority populations in Chicago is the American Community Survey (ACS), covering statistical data in the city from 2006 to 2008 (American Community Survey Data, 2009). This survey is conducted by the US Census Bureau and covers a wide range of demographic information not covered on the standard census. The survey is not all inclusive, rather is a random sampling of an area's population that conveys a wider range of data, but more general numbers due to the methods that are used to translate the sample population statistics into estimation for a large area. This system of taking account of demographic characteristics in the years between censuses was developed from and has replaced the "long form" census, which was in use in 2000 and was sent to one in six residents in the U.S. (American Community Survey Data, 2009).
The 2006 to 2008 ACS for Chicago outlines more detailed social characteristics than the ten question standard census can, and is ongoing during the ten year period between censuses. The estimates of the total population of Chicago have actually declined since the 2000 census, while the minority populations have increased in number (2009).
According to ACS data, the main ethnic groups are European, Asian and African, and that nearly 100,000 Chicagoans speak a language other than English at home. Of those that speak a native language other than English, the ACS divides the group into Spanish, the largest percentage at 63.9, Indo-European, Asian and Pacific Islander, and "other". These numbers help schools decide which foreign languages to offer to high-school, college, and university students in an area, based on which foreign languages are most practical as core foreign language programs. These numbers also affect the way federal, state, and city funds are distributed and shape social programs geared toward minorities. (American Community Survey Data, 2009)
There are many education options available in the Chicago Public School System, the third largest school district in the US. (City of Chicago, n.d.) The area also offers a multitude of private schools, colleges and universities. The most common languages offered to high-school and post-secondary students are Spanish, French, and Italian or German, the standard for American foreign language curriculums. (Deaf Bilingual Coalition, n.d. ) Creating and implementing curriculums for other less traditionally taught languages is expensive and is rarely done, especially if the data for the area from the census bureau and other demographic and social research does not justify it. One minority group that has been fighting to have their language taught at more high school, colleges and universities are American Sign Language (ASL) users. There is insufficient data for most schools to justify implementing ASL programs as there is not even an accurate method of estimating populations of Deaf and hard of hearing (HOH) people. (State of Illinois Deaf & Hard of Hearing Commission, n.d.) This is due in part to the fact that in the past, disabled people have not been recorded in census data as disabled, let alone distinguished into groups such as Deaf, HOH, blind, or developmentally disabled (American Community Survey Data, 2009). Many disabled people aren't even counted in the census at all due to difficulty in filling out the form because of either physical or mental difficulty. Some are unaware of the census, or do not feel comfortable having someone help them fill out the form and consider it an invasion of privacy. For the 2010 census, the US Census Bureau is double-mailing to areas with low response rates for the first time in history. Access Living, a Chicago census group, is reaching out to people with disabilities to make sure that everyone is counted in this crucial federal research. The group will reach out into the networks of Blind, Deaf/HOH, developmentally and physically disabled people in the Chicago area where they congregate; at residential schools and organizations for and of the disabled, including social clubs and special events (Demarest, 2010).
For the Deaf and HOH community in Chicago and nationwide, not being counted in demographic research is not the main barrier between people and social services. American Sign Language faces the problem of not being considered a "real" language by most hearing people. It is, in fact, a living, breathing, legitimate language, with its own syntax, vocabulary, and regional dialects across the United States. One major difficulty that hearing people have in understanding the validity of the ASL is that there is no written form of the language. ASL is a visual, conceptual language that is used by the Deaf people and those who are connected to and serve the Deaf and HOH community, including teachers, educators, and friends and family of Deaf people. These close knit communities of people are largely invisible to the hearing world, as many Deaf children attend residential schools for the Deaf, and many times trying to communicate is so frustrating that some give up and limit their contact with hearing people. Like any other minority language group within the US, Deaf people tend to operate within the comfort zone of those they can communicate with in their native language and are at risk of developing language deficiencies that limit their ability to navigate English-speaking dominant culture from within and without.
The Struggle for Language Legitimacy
Another element in the struggle for ASL users to have their language widely recognized as legitimate and appropriate for school curriculums as a foreign language is the fact that ASL is not in fact foreign. It is an American language, developed from French Sign Language (FSL) by way of educators and clergymen from France who were some of the first primary advocates of Deaf people. The various dialects used by different communities and institutions across the United States merged over time into modern ASL. Like English, ASL is constantly changing over time as new technology, people and events filter through the culture. Sometimes signs become irrelevant, old-fashioned or politically incorrect, and many signs vary from state to state, especially slang signs and signs specific to a geographic location.
The Navajo language is commonly compared to ASL. Navajo is a Native American language that had no written form until the mid 1900s. In the case of the Navajo, the language was only given a written form once the population of Navajo users had declined to the point that there was an imminent danger of the language and the culture disappearing almost entirely if it was not set down in writing. In their book, For Hearing People Only, Matthew Moore and Linda Levitan make such a comparison; "Fifty years ago, people could not write Navajo. A man created a writing system. Now some Navajo people can read and write Navajo" (Moore & Levitan). Not all Navajo users learned the written form; likewise, not all ASL users would use a written form of the language because it is impractical for everyday communication with the dominant English speaking population. However, a written form of ASL would give its users an opportunity to write in their native language and would eliminate some of the confusion the average hearing person has about the nature of ASL.
Vital to every issue in the Deaf/HOH community in every part of the nation is the fact that the majority of those born Deaf, a staggering 90 percent, are born to hearing parents (State of Illinois Deaf & Hard of Hearing Commission, 2010). This means that not only are hearing, English-speaking Americans dominant in the greater culture of the United States: they are also dominant within Deaf Culture. Hearing people make the decisions regarding how Deaf children are educated, how closely they are tied to Deaf culture, and how Deafness is perceived and accommodated in general. Only 12 percent of teachers of the Deaf are Deaf themselves, and most of them teach at residential schools (Scheets, 2000, p. 91). In addition to the status the Deaf community as a largely misunderstood outsider culture within the country, there is the issue of how each individual affected by hearing loss identifies in the gray area between the hearing and Deaf worlds. The circumstances of a person's hearing loss are integral to this identification, as is the education philosophy of parents of children born Deaf.
Resolution "HB0725", introduced to the Illinois General Assembly in February 2009 is a bill that encourages colleges and universities in the state to develop ASL and Deaf Studies curricula (2010). The bill also promotes the practice of allowing students to use earned credits in ASL to fulfill foreign language requirements for advanced degrees. HB0725 and other state and federal legislation across the nation have made it possible for more than 150 colleges and universities (Scheets, 2000, p.85 ) to recognize the legitimacy of ASL in their programming for Deaf Studies as well as Deaf students. The University of Chicago and Columbia University are among those schools aware of the need for a move away from the back and white choices of the past, and start to meet the needs of this underserved population. Currently, the only post-doctoral programs in the U.S. for Deaf Studies are through Gallaudet University and Research Institute in Washington, D.C. (Gallaudet University, n.d.). Gallaudet is the premiere residential Deaf school in the United States and the only major university on the planet whose student body is predominately Deaf or hard of hearing.
Overview of Chicago Organizations for and of the Deaf
According to Deaf411.com's Deaf-Friendly Cities report (2009), Chicago is one of the top 20 Deaf-friendly cities in the nation, but what does Deaf-friendly really mean? The factors the report considers in its rankings are: "local government that includes Deaf people in the political process, a Deaf community that is large enough to host activities and Deaf services, a positive and open-minded attitude among hearing residents, and a local Deaf education center nearby"(Rains, 2009, Â¶ 4). There are many organizations in Chicago "for the d/Deaf"; which means run predominately by hearing people, and "of the Deaf"; which means run by Deaf people who identify with Deaf culture. In the organizations run by "hearies", the "d/Deaf" comes into play, depending on whether the person regards their hearing loss as a medical disability or as membership of an American subculture that shares a native language and history.
In 1942, the Chicago Club of the Deaf was established, and is one of the few remaining brick and mortar Deaf clubs in the nation. It provides resources to the community and a social anchor for Deaf and HOH people in Chicago (Chicago Club of the Deaf, n.d.). There used to be many more of these gathering places, but new technology combined with the weakening of the urban neighborhood unit has made these physical spaces rare.
The Chicago Hearing Society was founded by thirty HOH people in 1916 as an organization for those caught between hearing and Deaf worlds. It has grown over the last century to include all people affected by hearing loss. Today this organization of the Deaf focuses on youth programs and referrals for support groups, meetings, events, and services .The Society also helps Deaf and HOH people to obtain communication devices, domestic violence counseling, social services and legal representation (n.d.).
Chicago also boasts Deaf/HOH organizations that advocate for Deaf education and language rights such as the Chicago chapter of the Deaf Bilingual Coalition (DBC), whose mission is to promote "the basic human right of all Deaf infants and young children to have access to language and cognitive development through American Sign Language (ASL)" (Deaf Bilingual Coalition, n.d. ). The DBC is one of the major Deaf non-profit organizations in the world, and provides comprehensive representation of the myriad needs of people affected by hearing loss. As its name implies, DBC seeks to integrate and serve all the groups within the d/Deaf/HOH community, including their hearing families and friends, English or ASL users, and anyone in between. The main concern of the DBC is to promote the use of ASL as a native language for deaf children to prevent language deficits and arrested development.
There are also several organizations for the Deaf, such as the Chicago Area Interpreter Referral Service (CAIRS), which connects ASL users with interpreting services and listings of Deaf-friendly medical professionals, counselors, and advocates, and services. This non-profit also serves the interpreting profession, connecting the Deaf community with licensed interpreters and providing training and continuing education opportunities. CAIRS also provides vital information to the Deaf/HOH community about events, consumer information and legal education regarding rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and other state and federal legislation (CAIRS, n.d.).
Along with for and non-profit Deaf and HOH organizations, the City of Chicago has a respectably comprehensive support network for people with disabilities. The Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD) provides advocacy, including ADA compliance issues, practical assistance, and referral assistance to Deaf Chicagoans. The MOPD also provides an independent living program to coordinate support and services to empower people with disabilities to be self-sufficient while receiving the services they need (n.d.).The d/Deaf & HOH community has always been plagued with divides because of the variety of community definitions that have been applied to hearing loss. In Chicago, some signs of change can be seen in the city and state government's priority to serve them.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 signaled a change across the nation for the basic rights of people with disabilities to have barrier-free access to education, employment, housing, public services and other services. The most widespread change in public places is largely for the benefit of blind people and people with mobility impairments. These groups are the easiest for the dominant culture to understand and therefore the easiest to write legislation for. Their native language is English, and they do not have a culture built around a struggle to preserve itself under constant fire from hearing parents or leaders of institutions for the Deaf. Written English translated to Braille (coded English) and wheelchair ramps have become commonplace in public spaces, yet few, if any accommodations are made for people with hearing loss. Those who rely on ASL do not yet have the same options for independence that other people with disabilities have fought for and had restored to them. Deaf ASL users are faced with the choice of staying isolated within their cultural communities or resigning themselves to communicating through a third party. Just like everyone else, adjusting to the advent of new technologies that don't require face-to-face contact has made an impact on the way Deaf people to each other and the level of social isolation that becomes both possible and acceptable. Some have had cochlear implant surgery and/or were trained in the oral/aural method which teaches Deaf people to speak by identifying facial configuration and vibrations to reproduce English they can't hear and don't fully understand. Hearing people are largely unaware of Deaf culture and fear trying to communicate with ASL users who do not speak and have various levels of English literacy depending on how they were educated.
Language definitely has the potential to isolate. But ASL was developed by Deaf people to salve the isolation of centuries past, when people relied on home-made sign systems or had no language at all. The efforts to include Deaf people in statistical research, including research at universities that have Deaf Studies programs are vital to serving the needs of our overall communities. Unlike the Native Americans, whose languages were vulnerable to extinction through persistent oppression, Deaf people cannot simply fade into the history books of our nation. Deafness can come at any age in life, or be hereditary at birth, and mostly to hearing parents who are unaware of the culture and its wisdom. As with any minority population in the City of Chicago, the Deaf community struggles to integrate with the mainstream population. Legislators struggle to understand the needs of Deaf people, and every individual involved has a different perspective. Laws like Illinois Resolution HB0725 have just started to fall into place to foster better solutions for Deaf people and their communities through education.