Her name is Cheryl Blue. She is head of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services (DHHS) Duluth office on Superior Street, and she is deaf.
I was there with her in October to discuss DHHS and how it serves Duluth’s deaf community.
She walked me to a small conference room and we sat down.
“So you’re the program specialist here,” I said. “What exactly do you do?”
Blue is a skilled lip reader, but her words are hard to make out. She prefers using American Sign Language to Spoken English, but she can speak far better than most hearing people can sign.
She has been with DHHS for 25 years, 22 of which have been spent in Duluth.
A division of Minnesota’s Department of Human Services, DHHS is intended to serve and teach residents who are deaf, deaf-blind and hard of hearing, families of those residents and the at-large community. This includes providing deaf households with assistive technology, educating and supporting businesses that hire workers who are deaf and lobbying for issues related to deafness.
DHHS was created under Minnesota’s Hearing Impaired Services Act in 1980, when the economic and social circumstances in Duluth were taking a heavy toll on the deaf community.
According to Blue, technological advances and changes made by the city as a result of DHHS lobbying, which include closed captioning in movie theaters, have made it more practical for people who are deaf to remain in Duluth.
“Before 1980 (support) was mostly volunteer or family members,” Blue said.
Buckle and boom
For Duluth, the support came at an economically and socially volatile time.
Iron ore shipments dropped when the Iron Range buckled.
The Duluth Works steel plant wilted under foreign competition.
And the cement company closed because it no longer received raw materials from the steel plant. Duluth’s population was in sharp decline. The 1960 census counted 107,312 citizens. By 1990 the count was 85,493. A billboard on the edge of town along Interstate 35 South read: “The last one out, please turn out the lights.”
The plight of the city weighed heavily on the deaf community, which depended on the disappearing factory jobs.
Justin Small, a Deaf Studies instructor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, said some of the younger deaf community members moved, mostly to the Twin Cities, and some of the older members aged out.
Lloyd Moe founded a deaf club for Greater Duluth in the early 1960s.
In 1997 Moe was interviewed by Robert Cook of the Commission of Deaf, Deaf-Blind and Hard of Hearing Minnesotans. Moe said through an interpreter that the Club was down to 16 members after once having “many members from all over northern Wisconsin and northern Minnesota.”
During the interview Moe referenced the Diamond Calk Horseshoe Company that was based in Duluth.
At one time the family-owned hardware company employed nearly 20 workers who were deaf. The group dwindled and eventually the last deaf worker retired.
Cooper Tools purchased the Diamond Calk Horseshoe Company and relocated facilities to North and South Carolina in 1994.
The Duluth plant was torn down two years later.
“Some call it progress,” Moe said. “But I don’t know.”
As the Rust Belt browned, the deaf community in Duluth and those across the country received a lift.
The Internet boomed and technological advances including email and cellphones leveled communication barriers. All-digital hearing aids hit the market for those whose hearing loss was not profound.
Movie theaters in Duluth made more frequent use of closed captioning.
“Technology really saved our lives,” Blue said.
Deaf Club relics
A woman wearing a flannel jacket comes through the door on a sloppy night in October. She waves at her party, which is already seated, and it waves back. Silent and smiling, she takes her place.
On the corner of West First Street, Sammy’s Pizza sits on the ground floor of a brown-brick apartment building. Rain streams off the front awning and fog obscures the view outside from within the dining room.
This is where two or three dozen members of Duluth’s deaf community meet each month to interact in ways they seldom have since the demise of the Deaf Club.
In the center of the room several tables are pushed together. As the party expands, chairs are borrowed from nearby tables.
Conversations develop and dissolve, and then get replaced by new ones. The only sound above clinking silverware is atmospheric music: ABBA and The Association.
A diminishing fraction of Duluth’s deaf community has met monthly for 20 years, the last 10 years or so at Sammy’s.
Nancy Diener sits near the middle of the several-table chain.
A longtime ASL and Deaf Studies professor at UMD, Diener moved to Duluth in 1985. She is hearing, but rooted enough in the local deaf community to take part at Sammy’s.
Diener was there when the get-togethers drew larger crowds. And she’s there now, at a time when they’ve been reduced to relics of the bygone Deaf Club.
“I think it’s pretty important for a lot of people,” Diener says. “In the past … their respite was to get together every week with deaf people where they could communicate freely. Sammy’s is all that’s left of it.”
A woman takes a few steps toward my table in the corner of the dining room. She points to a chair.
“Is anyone sitting here?” she says.
She takes the chair to the chain of tables in the middle of the room.
Open but closed
In 2008 UMD introduced a Deaf Studies minor that added courses in linguistics, fingerspelling and deaf culture to the lineup of ASL courses the University has offered since the early 1970s.
According to Diener, students with an array of majors have taken the minor.
Dawn Stevenson, an ASL interpreter and Deaf Studies instructor at UMD, said the new program provides a service for people who want to learn about deafness “as a difference rather than a medical condition.”
“I just was in a class with an older deaf citizen who said to all the students, ‘Thank you for learning sign language,’” Stevenson said in November. “‘When I was young,’” the citizen said, “‘I was ashamed of my signing. Deafness wasn’t something to be proud of.’”
Stevenson, who started working at UMD in 1990, has her own history trying to connect with members of the deaf community.
In 1983 Stevenson took a sign language course in college.
While working at a deaf camp for children three years later, she discovered she had learned Signed English (sign language with English grammar and word order), not ASL.
“They told me I signed like a hearing person,” Stevenson said. “I responded, ‘Well, I am a hearing person.’ A huge insult from a 10-year-old.”
Stevenson went back to school, learned ASL and later took the UMD job.
During her tenure, the University has devoted increased time and resources to educating students about ASL and deaf culture.
There is openness in the deaf community today that hasn’t always existed. People who are deaf go to movie theaters, gather at Sammy’s and are generally more comfortable signing in public.
But the deaf community in Duluth still seems closed.
My requests to meet with members of the deaf community not affiliated with UMD and DHHS were denied. Stevenson and Diener said the deaf community has been exploited and grown wary of meeting with the hearing community.
People who are deaf want to know that a relationship is not strategic or exploitative, Stevenson said.
I wish I had been given the chance to show them that.