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March 24, 2003

Exhibit reveals history from deaf perspective

From: Akron Beacon Journal, OH - Mar 24, 2003

Rittman advocate for hearing-impaired was key in booking display
By Carol Biliczky
Beacon Journal staff writer

While teachers praised Jacqueline Lawless' flair for lip reading, she feels she didn't learn to communicate until she mastered sign language at college.

That skill propelled her into a new world, one that she wants to share with the public next month.

The Rittman resident has been instrumental in bringing a traveling exhibit from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., to Akron on April 6 -- its only Ohio appearance.

History Through Deaf Eyes aims to shed light on the history of the deaf and hard of hearing in America through 60 panels, each about the size of a door, and an interactive DVD through which visitors can ``meet'' deaf people.

During the last two years, about 375,000 people have seen the exhibit as it traversed the country. The exhibit covers, from the perspective of the deaf, almost 200 years of societal issues such as westward expansion, the world wars and the civil rights movement.

Lawless hopes the free exhibit will abolish some misconceptions about what the deaf can accomplish.

``Some people think, `Deaf people can't do this or that, they're so limited.' But they'll be surprised to see all that we've accomplished,'' she said through an interpreter, fingers dancing gracefully in American Sign Language.

In the first half of the 20th century, Akron was home to one of the nation's largest deaf communities. Many were drawn here for jobs in the rubber factories. By 1920, the city had earned the nickname of ``Crossroads of the Deaf.''

Today, the Akron-Canton area is home to about 1,000 people who are deaf or hard of hearing, perhaps 10 percent of the state total, according to the Ohio Association of the Deaf. Nationwide, some 28 million Americans are deaf or hard of hearing, about half of the population with disabilities, according to the National Association of the Deaf.

For Lawless, deafness came at an early age, 7 months, and was the result of illness.

She grew up lip reading and didn't learn to speak American Sign Language -- a communication system involving hand and body motions -- until she went to Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf, for a degree in math.

Marriage to a hearing-impaired man named James, three children and a career as a teacher of the deaf followed.

Today, she is head of the Ohio Association of the Deaf, which is sponsoring the monthlong exhibit and its grand opening banquet April 6. The display will be at the American Red Cross in Akron.

Part of her work now is to collect $10,000 more to pay for the exhibit, a task some might see as a challenge given her communication skills in this hearing world.

Lawless, however, doesn't see deafness as a disability or as something to be cured. She sees it as a blessing.

``I'm happy. I grew up deaf, and that's who I am.''

She asks that any donations to defray the exhibits' costs be sent to John Bradley Jr., 278 Archwood Ave., Munroe Falls, OH 44262.

2003 Beacon Journal and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.