Almost 9,000 people from more than 70 countries gathered recently in Washington D.C. to attend Deaf Way II, the world's largest convention of deaf people. The focus was on the arts, but the week-long event also included demonstrations of the latest technology, symposia, discussions, workshops, and opportunities to meet and socialize for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.
The Deaf Way II convention opened with spectacular visual effects, music that vibrated through the floors and seats, and an array of international performers.
Large screens placed at the back of the stage and along the sides of the Washington Convention Center made it possible for everyone in the audience to see the gala program: native-American ceremonial dances, Russian clowns, Chinese ballet, a Czech theater performance and more. Visitors could read words on the screens or watch sign language interpreters who were strategically placed throughout the hall.
Throughout the week, some 400 deaf artists from all over the world demonstrated their skills in Washington's major art venues, including the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the National Arboretum, and the Smithsonian museums. Tim McCarty, the producer of the Deaf Way Arts Festival, said local institutions were eager to present the deaf artists' work.
"For example, with the Smithsonian, the artists are being exhibited or performing at the Smithsonian not because they are deaf, but because of their excellence and because they fit programmatically," he explained. "We have a Japanese ceramist [Eiichi] Mitsui who is exhibiting at the Sackler Gallery of Art. They do Eastern Art. At the Discovery Theater we have children performers from four different countries. At the Zoo, we have Chuck Baird and some of his work incorporates sign language with animals. So it was actually a very easy fit."
The Austrian theater group "Arbos" presented The Strangers, a play by Bosnian-born writer Dzevad Karahasan. The work opens and closes with a wedding scene. But it is a different type of wedding that really matters in this performance, which is a co-production by deaf and hearing artists for a mixed deaf and hearing audience. According to artistic director Herbert Gantschacher, the play requires two different cultures on the stage.
He said, "We, Arbos, are in the lucky situation that we have excellent, extraordinary, deaf actors [in addition to hearing actors] with a sign language. So we use in this production two languages on the stage the spoken language and the sign language."
The Strangers is a dark comedy for two actors who portray a peasant and his twisted guardian angel, called the Agent. The peasant enters the Western World with the ambition of becoming rich and famous. The Agent persuades him to commit a massacre at a wedding and pass it off as an original artistic performance. The murderer becomes an overnight celebrity - his final suicide, his ultimate artistic creation. The Agent goes to another wedding in search of another victim and the play goes on.
Horst Dittrich, a deaf member of the Arbos group, translated Karahasan's play into Austrian sign language and helped produce the play. Speaking through an interpreter, Mr. Dittrich says deaf actors have a hard time proving they can act as well as their hearing colleagues.
"We deaf persons, and me too, it was very important to raise that level, to be equal, and when I learned to know Herbert [Gantschacher], I wanted to show the complete audience that we deaf are at an equal level as the hearing persons," he said.
In this sold-out production of The Strangers, music and sounds take on the roles of the police, journalists, jailers and art patrons. For the deaf audience, the same roles are represented with lights of different color.
Deaf Way II was not just an arts festival. Lectures, workshops, roundtables and other events throughout the day looked into every aspect of deaf people's lives, from raising and adopting children to education, employment, health issues and women's and minorities' issues in various countries.
Visitors were also attracted by exhibit booths that display the latest technology, designed to give deaf people as much independence as possible. Sharyl Pyrdol demonstrated a range of products by the Ameriphone and Walker companies.
She said, "We have our notification systems which, by virtue of lights and bed shakers, can alert deaf people to activities around the home - such as phone ringing, doorbell, somebody walking through a room, a baby crying, a door announcer, if you have a door chime that you like to use - those kinds of systems with their remote devices so you can carry that notification capability into other rooms as well."
Notification systems are electronic boxes of various sizes that can be kept near the bed or carried around. They use flashing lights or vibrations to alert the person who cannot hear that something is going on in the house. Symbols on the control panel light up to show where in the house the action takes place.
Sharyl Pyrdol said text telephones are another popular product. The new versions are lighter, faster and more versatile than the older ones. The latest model Q90U can be used by deaf as well as hearing people. It works on batteries and is compatible with the new digital cell-phones so it can be used outside the house.
The Deaf Way II convention was organized by Washington's Gallaudet University, the world's only university for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Gallaudet was also the host of Deaf Way I, thirteen years ago. King Jordan, President of Gallaudet University, says many people who attended that first convention returned home with ideas of how they can help their own deaf communities. Mr. Jordan thinks it is time to move Deaf Way to other countries.
"I don't want the world to think that it's a Gallaudet thing," he said. "I want the world to know that this is about deaf people and so I am very proud to host the second Deaf Way, but I hope that somebody else will take on the third, the fourth, the fifth. I'd like to see Deaf Way happen every year in different countries all over the world."
The president of Gallaudet University says the first Deaf Way convention was organized so that deaf people from all over the world could meet, exchange ideas and learn from one another. The goal of Deaf Way II was also to help bridge the gap between the deaf and the hearing worlds.