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Mainstreamed Actors Bridge the Deaf and Hearing Worlds

Of the estimated twenty million Americans with impaired hearing, over a half million cannot hear or understand any speech at all. While being deaf can set one apart from the hearing world in painful ways, it does not mean that person is alone. The deaf have a culture, history and an eloquent language all their own.

The difficulties and rewards of building bridges between the worlds of the hearing and the deaf is the theme of Mainstreamed, a new play geared to high school students. VOA's Adam Phillips reports from New York.

The song “Public Law Nine Four One Four Two” opens Mainstreamed, a fifty-minute educational play featuring both deaf and hearing actors. The song lampoons the wording of the 1975 law that required mainstream schools to educate handicapped children. Many in the deaf world consider the wording of the law to be patronizing.

Josette Todaro is the educational director of the Amaryllis Theater, the non-profit activist group that has performed the play for over twelve thousand high school students.

"People are very curious about the idea of deaf culture. Many hearing people didn't know that there was such a thing as deaf culture - that deaf people were proud to be deaf. But we also wrote this play to talk with deaf people about hearing people - that there was this desire for us all to communicate, to reach out and connect."

Mainstreamed follows the experience of a deaf girl named Alyssa as she tries to adjust to life and make friends at a mainstream school where she is shunned for using sign language and her difficulties with normal speech. Alyssa's isolation is made worse at home, where her hearing family will not learn sign language, in an effort to force her to read lips and in order to live what they believe is a more normal life.

Today, Tracy Weber, the young deaf actress who plays Alyssa, can hear with the help of a hearing aid. But she says her character's experiences mirror those of her own early life.

"It's true. A lot of kids were picking on me. It was so hard -- until 1993 [when] I came into the deaf school [and] I fell in love with it. Everyone was signing [and] able to communicate with their hands. I could understand everything so clear. It was like 'Wow! Sign language is the most beautiful thing!' I love to show [the world] who I am and I love being deaf!"

The play's plot thickens when James, a fellow student who can hear, begins to show interest in Alyssa. James' shy and halting attempts to use sign language to communicate with this unpopular girl, and Alyssa's curiosity about James' experience of hearing, underscore the play's central message. Again, Josette Todaro.

“I think he's a genuinely nice person who is curious about 'difference' and has a certain level of appreciation for people who are different and wants to explore that appreciation, but also is very human. He's also influenced by the fact that he is in high school - peer pressure etc [thinking] 'Oh, this is harder to communicate with Alyssa because somebody may give me grief or may question who I am if I do so.'”

Alyssa herself faces a dilemma when she is offered a cochlear implant operation that will help her to hear. Tony, her profoundly deaf friend, says this would betray the exclusive bond she shares with other deaf people.

Robert DeMayo, the deaf actor who plays Tony, says that this attitude is not unusual among deaf people who are proud of their culture. Exclusion, he says, can be a two-way street.

"They don't want to hang out with hearing people. They want to stay in their world. They don't care about the outside. A lot of deaf people are angry!"

The song, called “Tell Me What You Hear” occurs after the play's optimistic climax when Alyssa helps James to understand what it might be like to live within the deaf culture, and James conveys to Alyssa a sense of what the hearing world feels like.

This scene often moves high school audience members, who are at an age where issues of ‘us and them’ and whether -- and how -- to bridge those gaps can be especially acute says Josette Todaro.

“And Mainstreamed really strives to talk about what is common in all of us … and say 'we don't have to be exactly the same.' No one is asking anyone to be the same -- but to appreciate even those subtle differences in one another -- that there is something rich there that will help us connect better to our communities where we live and learn.”