Sign language, technology breaking down barriers between deaf, hearing people

Faridna Hunter uses American Sign Language to speak to a remote client over the internet at ASL Services in Kissimmee, Fla. She can translate signing into speech, and speech into signing. ASL Services is growing into one of the nation's largest sign-language call centers. Technology like Skype and video-conferencing are making this more possible. (AP Photo/Orlando Sentinel, George Skene. File Feb. 27, 2015 )

When Laurence Whitworth went out to play or to school as a child, his mother couldn’t enjoy the peace of mind of knowing that her son could pick up a phone and call if something was wrong.

That would have been more than just a convenience, considering Mr. Whitworth is deaf.

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“My mom would have to let me go and basically pray that nothing happens to me,” Mr. Whitworth recalled in an interview using Google Chat.

Mr. Whitworth doesn’t experience that anxiety as a parent today.

He and wife Elise, who is also deaf, have two boys who can hear, and communication is the least of their challenges in the home.

In fact, for the boys, ages 11 and 13, speaking into a cellphone is foreign: They use texting and video messages to communicate with their parents.

Communication has always been key to opportunity for the deaf community. Technological advances, which have changed the way everyone communicates, and a growing popularity among college students to learn American Sign Language (ASL) have now made it even easier for deaf and hearing communities to connect.

“Recent technology advances have been very good to bridge gaps between deaf and hearing people,” said Christopher Krentz, an English and ASL professor at the University of Virginia, using video-phone technology to speak.

In a hearing world

For Mrs. Whitworth, gaining a varied language education made all the difference. Being exposed to sign language and English — speaking and writing — was what has shaped her ability to communicate with many people.

She graduated with degrees in journalism and business management, and now runs two businesses with her husband.

The real challenges came when she became the mother of two hearing boys.

“Growing up, communication challenges were there, but it only affected me. So it was easy to ‘shrug my shoulders’ and miss out on half the communication with the hearing people in my life,” Mrs. Whitworth said.

“But when I had kids, hearing people would talk to my kids and not make sure we are reading their lips OK, and I’d get all ‘mama bear’ and frustrated,” Mrs. Whitworth recalled. “When it was just me, I’d move on and live life. With my kids I can’t just move on … so that made me feel truly ‘deaf’ for the first time in my life.”

The couple runs a creative marketing services firm, Satdaya Studios, near St. George, Utah, which helps clients increase their customer bases through events, websites and other marketing projects.

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