Now You’re Speaking My Language

Now You‘re Speaking My Language


AUGUST 28, 2014

Growing up in communities with a language and culture they can’t understand, many deaf people learn to live with isolation and frustrating social situations. Attempts to communicate with the hearing world often find it is the “hearies” that turn a deaf ear to their audible-challenged neighbors with such humiliating tactics as shouting, or speaking slowly as if they were stupid, or asking if they know another deaf person in China as if all deaf people know each other.

With an estimated 98,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing people living in East Texas, some felt it was time for a place where people understand their culture and speak their language.

Currently looking for an actual building, the Tyler Deaf and Hard of Hearing Center doesn’t let a little obstacle like that stop them from providing the deaf community with essential services including social activities, after school children’s programs, adult literacy classes, caseworker services, and basic sign language classes. Until they get a one-stop-shop location, they meet in a variety of places where they can interact and communicate freely with others.

Deaf herself, Susie Grona, is president of the center’s community advisory committee, a retired teacher and the inspiration behind creating a “home” for the East Texas deaf community. She recognized the need for a center after moving to Tyler from Corpus Christi where they had an active center for the deaf.

“The purpose of having the deaf center — a ‘one-stop shop’ — is accessibility and a deaf-friendly environment where everyone can communicate in sign or ASL,” Grona said.

ASL stands for American Sign Language and is the predominant language of deaf communities in the United States. Beautifully expressed with fingers and hands, touch and body language, it allows deaf people to connect and interact meaningfully with other human beings.

Referencing A Journey into the Deaf World, Grona estimates that 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents so they learn the values of the deaf community and sign language in residential schools, such as the Texas School for the Deaf. Children are also welcomed into the community through interaction with local deaf adults. This acculturation process encourages a close community and deaf people usually call each other by first name, foregoing the use of titles.

According to Grona, “The deaf community does not focus on the inability to hear, but the ability to thrive in a visual-spatial environment communicating bilingually in a bi-cultural environment (American Sign Language and English).”

In order to best serve the community, the center has a board of directors and a community advisory committee. Board members manage the center’s business and financial aspects, and community advisory committee members work within the deaf community, becoming familiar with its needs. Dr. Lonny McKinzie serves as the president of the board of directors.

The center gained the status of a non-profit organization in 2012 and now provides access to qualified interpreters, but still lacks the land and funding for a building. Their goal is to provide a central location for communication, a place where deaf people can come, chat, and feel at home. Eventually, the center will offer after school and summer recreational programs that focus on tutoring, leadership, and social activities. Literacy services are available to deaf and hard-of-hearing adults who want to improve their English reading and writing skills.

Networking with other deaf people and organizations, Grona finds a good variety of social activities in East Texas. Her husband, Patrick, serves as president of the Tyler Metro Association of the Deaf. Members come from all over East Texas and participate in monthly recreation activities such as game days.

Earlier this year the group hosted the 22nd annual East Texas Deaf Festival in Jacksonville that brought deaf people together to discuss recent advances in services. Mark Grimes, the association member who organized the festival, also schedules regular times for Deaf Chats at the Lindale Whataburger and Java Jams inside the Brookshire’s grocery store on Rice Road in Tyler.

The Tyler Metro Association of the Deaf also organizes a group trip to the annual Deaf Awareness Day at Six Flags in Dallas each summer where all shows in the park use sign language interpreters giving deaf and hard-of-hearing visitors an opportunity to relax and enjoy entertainment between rides.

Other options for the deaf community in East Texas include places for worship. New Beginnings Deaf Fellowship in Tyler is pastored by Reverend Dirk Hill, a deaf pastor who preaches in American Sign Language. The congregation of about fifteen people meets at Calvary Baptist Church on Old Jacksonville Highway in Tyler. This summer, New Beginnings Deaf Fellowship hosted the 65th annual Texas Baptist Conference of the Deaf welcoming deaf people from all over Texas to receive encouragement from speakers and fellowship.

Tyler is also home to the Tyler Sign Language Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which meets at Kingdom Hall on Spur 248.

While having places to go and other deaf people to interact with is a big comfort to deaf East Texans, there are still many times a day when they need to interact with hearing people. The best way for that to happen between any two people that speak different languages is with an interpreter. Without an interpreter, communication between deaf and hearing people is limited because even the most proficient lip readers can understand only about 33 percent of spoken messages. In medical and legal situations, this ambiguity can have high consequences.

Tyler Junior College is the only East Texas college which has an American Sign Language Interpreting Program and the only college in Texas with an ASL honor society. Basic American Sign Language communication classes are also available to the public through TJC’s School of Continuing Studies. These classes teach hearing people basic signs, the alphabet, and deaf culture. Many people do not know deaf people’s preferred language, American Sign Language, is not synonymous with Signed English. American Sign Language has its own grammar and structure, making it completely separate from English, both signed and spoken.

Rhonda McKinzie, chair of the college’s interpreting department, has been interpreting for 35 years. At the Tyler Junior College, she emphasizes the need for qualified, certified interpreters. Without accurate interpreters in hospitals, deaf people are at risk for misdiagnosis or even death.

Both Susie and Patrick Grona work at Tyler Junior College as adjunct professors in the American Sign Language Interpreting program as well. They train students in elementary and advanced ASL, respectively. As professors, they ensure that another generation of interpreters is well-educated, greatly benefitting the local group of deaf East Texans, as well as deaf people across the United States. The college’s program graduates are hired nationwide.

Susie said she hopes more hearing people learn ASL for better interaction with deaf people.

Describing the people she works so hard for, Susie Grona says, “No two deaf people are the same. They come from diverse backgrounds and influences as well as different sign systems taught in the educational programs. Most deaf people within the community welcome variety.”

That blend of diversity and acceptance makes the deaf community an irreplaceable part of the East Texan culture that the hearing world can embrace when they learn to speak their language.

Learn more about the Tyler Deaf and Hard of Hearing Center, sign language classes, and deaf-friendly calendar of events at To learn more about the deaf culture, Susie Grona recommends A Journey into the Deaf World by Harlan Lane, Robert Hoffmeister and Ben Bahan; Inside Deaf Culture by Carol Padden and Tom L. Humprhies; and Deaf Culture, Our Way by Roy K. Holcomb.


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