Learning about the Deaf community

(From left to right) Anita Rice and Ron & Agnes Sutcliffe, along with Lois Burr (not pictured) are part of the Riderwood Deaf community. (Photo by Bob Phillips)

By Almeda Girod

Resident Writer

Anita was born in South Philadelphia as the youngest of four siblings. Her parents operated a mortuary, and Anita recalls “helping with flowers and putting makeup on the deceased.” She became Deaf at 18 months after having rubella and a high fever. It was an unfavorable situation when she attended an Oral School for the Deaf before going on to a school where sign language was taught. Anita recalls an early period where she felt isolated from the world. She went on to become a model before meeting her hard-of-hearing husband at a dance, and they settled in Abingdon, Pa. to rear their three children who are all hard of hearing. Anita worked in various roles at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.

Lois Burr was born in Humphrey, Nebraska, the youngest of four siblings. Her parents and extended family owned small businesses. Lois lost some hearing and was sent to the Nebraska School of the Deaf where she met Agnes. Her husband, whom she met at Gallaudet University worked as a printer at the Washington Post during a period when it was common to employ Deaf persons in the noisy environment of printing presses. Lois, the mother of four hearing children, worked as a librarian at Department of Defense.

Agnes grew up in the small village of Clarksville, Missouri, the second oldest of ten children. It was noted after a bout of spinal meningitis at age 18 months that Agnes was not hearing. Ron grew up in Waverly, Iowa (population 1,000) to Deaf parents. His only sister is hearing. He was hard of hearing until age four when he became Deaf after a mastoid infection. Ron and his parents lived on a 300-acre farm with extended family members, and he recalls feeling “isolated with no playmates.” Ron and Agnes met at a picnic before going to Gallaudet University. Ron earned a Ph.D. in higher education at the University of Maryland and returned to Gallaudet to teach business and later became Dean of the Business School. Agnes taught American Sign Language at Gallaudet for 35 years. The couple has five children.

There were a more significant number of Deaf Riderwood residents 10 to 12 years ago, but this number has dwindled. Fiona Divecha was approached to organize the Riderwood Deaf Community to have the hearing rights of the Deaf addressed. Agnes comments on Riderwood being spacious and comfortable and all under one roof. The artwork and movies with captions are appreciated as are the stores and banks. It is hoped that more Deaf persons may feel welcome moving to Riderwood.

Lois says that “If folks talk directly to me, I can understand, but in a group, I am lost.” Agnes commends some waiters who have picked up “signs.” Gesturing and notes are helpful.

It is a myth that lip reading is effective. Ron has been asked, “Do you read lips?” And when he responds that he cannot they reply, “I’m sorry that I do not know Sign Language.”

As I. King Jordon (the first Deaf president of Gallaudet University) once said: “Deaf people can do anything but hear.” Our Deaf community at Riderwood is showing us just that!

Special thanks to Susan Walker for interpretting this interview.

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