How Rochester became ‘tremendous model,’ popular home for deaf community

By Teri Weaver | tweaver@syracuse.com
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on March 27, 2016 at 2:00 AM

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Antony A. L. McLetchie moved a little more than a year ago to become superintendent of the Rochester School for the Deaf.

McLetchie took charge of one of the nation’s oldest schools for children who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. But McLetchie’s relocation was much more than another chapter in his career. Moving to Rochester meant better and easier access to healthcare, professional services, media and so many other important and everyday aspects of life.

“I feel like a normal person here,” McLetchie said through an American Sign Language/English interpreter.

Rochester has the highest per capita population of deaf or hard-of-hearing adults younger than 65 in the nation, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data by the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, a part of Rochester Institute of Technology.

The institute is a large part of why Rochester has become a magnet for deaf people. But NTID is just one piece of the story.

The fuller explanation involves decades of big industry jobs and small, local business decisions that not only drew deaf people to Rochester but encouraged them to stay.

At first, Kodak and Xerox provided work for deaf people, many interviewed said. Bars and restaurants — and even local television news reports — turned on captioning long before news tickers became common. Hospitals began staffing interpreters. Hair stylists and bartenders who learned ASL attracted loyal clients. And as the major factories downsized, video relay services and other communications businesses opened. All the while, a parish for deaf people grew.

“There’s even a deaf Rotary Club here,” said the Rev. Ray Fleming, a Roman Catholic priest for two parishes in Rochester — one hearing and one deaf.

As more deaf and hard-of-hearing people settled here, a critical mass formed. Now the city has a deaf dentist, two deaf veterinarians and deaf attorneys. The local medical school routinely graduates doctors who happen to be deaf.

“Rochester grew a deaf middle class,” said Dr. Peter Hauser, a psychologist and professor who directs the Deaf Studies Laboratory at NTID.

Perhaps most importantly, many said, Rochester’s hearing residents have helped make communication ordinary instead of onerous. “Rochester has been a very accessible community,” McLetchie said. “(Hearing) people already know how to sign. Or they write back and forth. Or use smart phones. Rochester has certainly evolved. And it’s a tremendous model.”

So many people in Rochester know ASL, those who use it in public must be mindful, said Bernie Hurwitz, an assistant vice president of RIT for NTID. “The odds are pretty good somebody in that restaurant will know what you’re signing,” he said, laughing.

SUPPORT FOR GENERATIONS

The Rochester School for the Deaf opened in 1876. Instructors emphasized fingerspelling — literally spelling each letter by hand. It became known as the Rochester Method. In later years, the school began emphasizing bilingual studies — ASL and English languages.

Today, the school is one of 11 for deaf, blind or severely physically disabled students run by the state. The school is still small; enrollment this year is 116 students, pre-K to 12. Yet over the decades, many graduates found work in Rochester and stayed, McLetchie said.

By the mid-1960s, federal leaders were looking for a home for a technical college for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. RIT beat out eight other colleges (with the help of then-U.S. Rep. Hugh Carey and advocates from the Rochester School for the Deaf) and became the home of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. In 1968 the school opened and 70 students enrolled.

Five decades later, NTID enrolls about 1,200 students each year in programs ranging from associate degrees to doctorates. (More than 70 percent of the school’s budget is subsidized by the federal government.) Those students live and study on RIT’s campus. Dorms house hearing and deaf students; flickering lights are common as notifications throughout campus.

About 94 percent of graduates with NTID associate degrees get jobs, Hurwitz said. And all of those students must have some off-campus internship to graduate — a requirement that has built a stable of businesses in Rochester and throughout the country that regularly hire NTID graduates.

Tabitha Benavides and Chinkee Gratrix are chemistry majors at NTID. Like so many young college students, they spent much of their first few months on-campus because they didn’t have cars. More recently, they’ve been exploring Rochester and Niagara Falls. They both said they didn’t see anything extra special about Rochester, though its deaf community is noticeably bigger, Gratrix said.

Gratrix, who is from Vancouver, Ore., wants to stay. “I’m hoping to work at RIT,” she said, through an interpreter. “I’ve had wonderful role models. Maybe I can be the next one for someone else.”

That, many say, explains so much about Rochester’s deaf community. NTID now has about 8,000 alums — graduates who can mentor the next generation, Hurwitz said. “It really provides a comfort zone,” he said.

A CARING, COMPASSIONATE PRIEST

Why Rochester became so popular for deaf and hard-of-hearing peopleListen as the Rev. Ray Fleming explains why Rochester has become a great home for deaf people. Video by David Lassman | dlassman@syracuse.com

The Rev. Ray Fleming came to Rochester at about the same time a parish for the deaf formed here in the early 1980s. Fleming grew up in Butte, Mont., where he was the only deaf kid he knew. He graduated from Gallaudet University, the liberal arts school for the deaf and hard-of-hearing in Washington, D.C.

In Rochester, Fleming became minister to the Emmanuel Church of the Deaf. As parishes in the Rochester-area consolidated, it made sense for Fleming to oversee a second parish for hearing people. So about 10 years ago, Fleming began ministering to both the St. Monica Parish (with about 400 households) and the Emmanuel Parish (with about 100 households).

Now, Fleming celebrates two Sunday morning Masses at St. Monica Church in Rochester’s 19th Ward neighborhood. He speaks at the 9 a.m. service and signs during the 11 a.m. service.

Fleming calls himself deaf, though he can hear with the help of powerful hearing aids. When he speaks, he uses asides, rising phrases and dramatic whispers to emphasize lessons in his homilies. “Do what I have done,” he told a group of St. Monica parishioners at a recent Mass, emphasizing a message of the Lenten season.

Fleming says he worries about serving his hearing parishioners. He can’t talk on the phone, he says.

His hearing parishioners don’t seem to mind. Bob Engle joined the St. Monica parish about 18 months ago because of “Father Ray.”

“He’s the most caring, compassionate priest I’ve ever met,” Engle said. “You just have to remember to be in front of him when you speak to him.”

COMMUNITY SUPPORTS

Engle lives in Greece, one of Rochester’s biggest suburbs. Many of the school districts in Rochester and its suburbs, including Greece, offer ASL as a language elective.

That is not unique. (And neither is a parish for deaf people in the Roman Catholic church, Fleming said.)

About 13 percent of public schools across New York offer ASL as a language option, according to the New York State Education Department. But only 11 districts in New York offer fourth-year ASL, including the Greece Central School District.

The University of Rochester Medical Center includes programs that study and treat deaf or hard-of-hearing patients. The school offers training for future doctors who might have deaf patients. The Deaf Wellness Center, a part of the medical center, provides mental health services to deaf people in the region.

Each year, the wellness center ensures at least one doctoral intern is deaf, according to Dr. Robert Pollard. All students learn to treat both hearing and non-hearing patients, he said.

“We have a deaf social worker and a deaf counselor,” Pollard said. The medical school currently has two deaf students, and Strong Memorial Hospital has a deaf nurse on staff, he said.

“When you’re in Rochester, it’s just par for the course,” he said.

One of the few parts of the Rochester community without a deaf or hard-of-hearing person is local politics. Hurwitz, of NTID, said he couldn’t think of anyone who had run for or won office.

“Not yet,” he said.

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