Resources and culture make Rochester a draw for many in the deaf community

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

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

“Our intention is also to find other ways to expand access and understanding,” Pierce said. “And that will include subtitles, captions, that will include translations wherever we can.”

This is not the first time that interpreters have been recruited to relay messages from politicians.

Former Mayor Lovely Warren and Monroe County Executive Adam Bello incorporated them in recent years. And in businesses and cultural institutions in the Rochester area, housing is more common than in other parts of the country.

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, departures and emergencies, but for 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 deaf doctors. We have signed doctors. The movies are regularly captioned. 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 the RIT National Institute for the Deaf. 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 says, her world expanded.

“When I arrived on campus, I was amazed,” Sankey said. “There were hundreds, if not thousands, of deaf people everywhere – signing, banging on tables, shouting for attention. I had never seen this 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 this Deaf Culture Center reverberates through the community as a whole.

“We have deaf doctors. We have signed doctors. Movies are regularly captioned. I don’t have to fight for it,” she said. “When we go somewhere, there will be transcripts available if we ask for them. When I go home to visit my parents, I don’t have those options.”

The latest census data shows that there are approximately 45,000 deaf or hard of hearing residents in the Rochester area. Richard Dimyer of RIT said that’s about 3.7% of the population, making it one of the largest in the country, comparable to cities like Austin, Texas, or Charlotte, North Carolina, or Columbus, Ohio.

Other deaf population centers are in places with universities like the RIT, with programs dedicated to the population. Since the census does not ask explicit questions about American Sign Language, Meyer cautioned that it is difficult to know how many people use it to communicate,

“Are we capturing people who have lost their hearing due to old age – who wouldn’t identify as deaf or hard of hearing from an identity perspective – versus the clinical side of things,” did he declare.

Regardless of the exact population size, 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 area makes life easier for him.

“It makes life more normal,” Jones said. “You know, that might be kind of a weird thing to hear. But we’re lucky to have an area where a lot of families are signing that you know a lot of people know about deaf culture, and they understand better what it’s like. it takes for people to just have a normal, regular life.”

This story is reported by WXXI’s Inclusion Office and is part of Disability Dialogue Week – a partnership between WXXI and the Al Sigl Agency Community – in conjunction with the Herman and Margaret Schwartz Community Series.

James C. Tibbs