- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 9, 2002

Sounds of silence filled the air at the Miss Deaf America finals over the weekend, but the message was loud and clear: Hearing is overrated.

"Deafness is a state of mind, not a disability," Lyle Hinks, professor of sign studies at American River College in Sacramento, Calif., said in a written interview. "It is a cultural phenomenon experienced by common associations."

Contestants at Saturday's pageant in the District, a staple of the National Association of the Deaf's (NAD) biennial conference, had nothing to say about the "silence-impaired" world.

They let their body language do the talking.

"I've always been proud of being deaf, but I wasn't really close to deaf culture until I came here," finalist Rachel Hollis, Miss Deaf Oklahoma, said through an interpreter afterwards. "I'm even prouder of it today."

During the interview portion of the pageant, Tyese Wright, Miss Deaf Maryland, said she would be a "deaf role model."

An eruption of silent applause in American Sign Language (ASL), people shake both hands in the air greeted Miss Wright when she later went onstage in a stunning black and silver sequined evening gown to accept the 2002 Miss Deaf America crown.

Miss Wright's talent presentation, a defiantly quiet interpretation of Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise," in which sign language and dance merged, only reinforced the conference's attitude that deafness is anything but a burden.

"Does my sassiness upset you?" the poem demanded as Miss Wright, 22, gyrated wildly.

"I am fascinated with deaf culture," wrote May, a young NAD first-timer from Maryland who wouldn't give her last name, in an interview prior to the show. "I benefit a lot from seeing these things."

More than 2,000 people attended this year's conference, the NAD's 46th, which began Wednesday and ended yesterday . The Deaf College Bowl finals, followed by a play entitled "Deafia: a Day in the Life of the Deaf Mafia," highlighted Friday's evening program.

Mr. Hinks said the "close bonds created by similar outlooks" and the "unique and treasured language" they share gives the deaf a unique sense of advantage that people with good hearing just can't understand.

"This conference has many social events, which are very enjoyable to us," he said. "We have a common culture, and we want the same things that [hearing] people enjoy."

Daily panel talks at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Northwest, this year's event site, covered everything from investment banking to youth leadership and were rarely staffed with interpreters.

"Most of the presenters don't want any interpreters," admitted one NAD organizer, whose hearing is fine.

In the meantime, a plethora of deaf-centered exhibits dominated by leading telecommunications companies from AT&T to Sony Ericcson filled the lower level of the hotel throughout the conference.

Conference-goers and pageant participants, who could frequently be spotted pounding the keyboards of their teletypewriter (TTY) telephones between events, emphasized the importance of new technology to modern deaf identity.

"The deaf community relies heavily on wireless communications such as TTY," said Motorola disabilities coordinator Nancy Valley, who handed out business cards printed in Braille on one side.

Motorola offered demonstrations of small pager-phones and of text telephones, which are small keyboards with hookups for regular cellular units, while other service providers sold them.

Other exhibits highlighting social events and job opportunities were more obviously "not for the hearing." Even the National Defense Agency advertised for signals analysts, offering job information forms playfully titled "For Your Eyes Only."

Exhibitors like "Deaf Artists in America," Deafbuy.com and the Catholic Office for the Deaf further mingled with groups like Rainbow Alliance of the Deaf a homosexual-advocacy group promoting upcoming events such as "Deaf Gay Day" at Walt Disney World and an "International Deaf Leather" parade.

The "deaf press," highlighted by such newspapers as Deaf USA, advertised deaf bicycling events and national youth leadership conferences for deaf youngsters.

But Saturday's Miss Deaf America pageant, NAD organizers said, continues to be the most wildly popular event.

This year's 27 contestants opened Saturday's show with a signed version of "America the Beautiful." Patriotism was a recurring theme in their presentations.

"My sense of pride in the deaf community blossomed [after September 11]," signed Lauren Teruel, Miss Deaf America 2000, in her farewell address.

"Deaf, hearing, black and white, we are united," signed Miss Hollis, 21, in her presentation, which was a poem about the Oklahoma City and World Trade Center attacks.

"It was a rich experience to be exposed to deaf culture, to see so many deaf people in one place and to spend the week with 26 wonderful contestants," she added afterwards. "I'll never forget it."

Tawny Holmes, Miss Deaf Alabama, ended up as second runner-up and Paula Souhrada, Miss Deaf South Dakota, was first runner-up. Jeannie Brown, Miss Deaf Texas, was voted by her peers as Miss Congeniality.

Loneliness and isolation evident especially in performances such as "Still I Rise" made up another major part of what the pageant's six finalists called the "richness of deaf culture."

Evelina Gaina, 21, Miss Deaf California, said her family left Romania at a young age to provide her with the advantages of the burgeoning deaf culture in America.

Miss Gaina performed a relentlessly grim program entitled "The Rough-faced Girl," in which she played an unattractive American Indian girl who falls in love with a bizarre sky deity.

The deity ends up taking her as a wife "just the way [she is]."

Declaring love to be blind, most of the finalists used their platforms to call for increased education and access, such as movie-theater captioning, for the deaf.

Most deaf children, one said, finish their education at a grade-school reading level. Another lamented the condition of people with multiple disabilities.

Miss Souhrada, 20, promised in her interview to be an "advocate for rights of the deaf" if she won the crown.

"I want to share the world with you," she silently crooned in a rendition of the frantic song "Runaway."

But conference-goers ultimately rejected any labels of victimhood or disability that may be applied to them by the hearing world.

"You know deaf people," signed John Maucere, pageant co-host, during an anecdote about security at the Baltimore airport. "We just nod and pretend to know what they [the hearing] say."

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