'It’s just there’s no awareness. There’s no exposure. We’re trying to fix that.' Group hopes to make Fargo more 'deaf friendly'

FARGO--Kerry Wahl sometimes gives people the impression that she's rude. In fact, because she's deaf, she isn't always aware when someone is talking to her.
Kerry Wahl, left, Michele Rolewitz, Christopher Peterson and Jodi Meisch are among the organizers for Deaf Awareness Week, Sept. 25 to 30, in Fargo. The first three are spelling "deaf awareness week." Meisch, right, is displaying the sign for "I love you" in sign language, also often used to mean sign language or deaf culture. Patrick Springer/The Forum

FARGO-Kerry Wahl sometimes gives people the impression that she's rude. In fact, because she's deaf, she isn't always aware when someone is talking to her.

Christopher Peterson, who also is deaf, can encounter communication challenges at work. In certain situations, he has to arrange for an interpreter who knows sign language. "If I need an interpreter tomorrow, it's not going to happen," he said. "So I don't feel equal."

Jodi Meisch, who can hear but learned how to sign to communicate with a friend's deaf son, believes that North Dakota isn't as "deaf friendly" as it should be. An estimated 86,000 residents are deaf or hard of hearing.

"It's just there's no awareness," she said. "There's no exposure. We're trying to fix that."

Apparently for the first time, Deaf Awareness Week will be observed in Fargo, Sept. 24-30, with a variety of events, including sign language instruction, book readings and a community walk.

"We want more awareness," said Michele Rolewitz, who is deaf and works as a loan processor. "We want to spread through the community."

The organizers, all from Fargo, met recently with The Forum Editorial Board to talk about the week and the awareness they hope to create through the activities.

"When I go to other states, the public is very comfortable with deaf people," Meisch said. "When I come home to North Dakota, there's this deaf shock."

Organizers hope that the week will help employers become more aware of the abilities of deaf workers, and be more attuned to their needs in the workplace.

"Jobs. Communicating at work, that is the No. 1 issue," said Wahl, who works as a housekeeper at a nursing home. She feels as though she's sometimes placed in a category because of her deafness. "People think, 'Oh, you're deaf. You can't do that.' We can. We just can't hear what you're saying."

Peterson has the same frustration. But he said he's been able to demonstrate his abilities on the job, resulting in a series of promotions over time. He now works as a handyman.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are responsible for hiring an interpreter when necessary for a deaf employee, he said.

But many employers are ignorant of the law's requirements, and don't know how to hire an interpreter, Peterson added. The North Dakota School for the Deaf, which is in Devils Lake, posts a list of freelance interpreters on its homepage, https://www.nd.gov/ndsd/.

"We can do everything except hear," Rolewitz added, quoting a famous statement from Irving King Jordan, the first president of Gallaudet University, a college for the deaf.

Often, because of unfamiliarity, people aren't sure how to communicate with a deaf person.

"You don't have to be scared to communicate," Rolewitz said. "Don't just gesture. Keep trying to communicate. Don't walk away."

Exchanging written comments is helpful. Thanks to the popularity of smartphones, now almost everyone has a texting device in hand, a boon to communicating with the deaf.

Minneapolis has achieved the reputation of being friendly to the deaf-so much so, that many deaf North Dakotans are drawn to the city, group members said. "We're losing part of the deaf population to other states," said Meisch, an office manager.

There are bright spots, however. West Acres Cinema now screens captioned movies once a month for the deaf and hard of hearing.

"It has just been awesome," Peterson said. "The deaf community really loves it. It's a start. It's better than nothing."