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Deaf Culture Gains Ground

For years, deaf people felt like second-class citizens. Now, deaf culture is experiencing a renaissance, reports CBS News Correspondent Russ Mitchell

The deaf civil rights movement really began 11 years ago, when angry deaf students at the nation s leading deaf college, Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., forced the appointment of their first deaf president.

"We fought through the oppression and we survived." Says Professor Rachel Stone, who is deaf, and teaches a graduate class in deaf culture at Western Maryland College, in Westminster, MD.

"People felt energized," says Stone. "People felt that their self-esteem, their pride, was expanding because of that movement." Now, deaf issues are as mainstream as network TV. On ER, a doctor decides his deaf son, Reece, will learn sign as his first language.

Says Dennis Smith, one of Stone's students: "Hearing people will never accept us. We are different, period." These students say that deaf people are not hearing people with broken ears. And although many of them learned to speak when young, now they choose not to.

"Why do we have to do the speech emphasis?," asks Stone. "It's always been to fit into the hearing world and we don t need to do that anymore."

They say, like other minority groups, they have their own values, their own identity, and their own social behaviors. But the defining issue of this movement is the fight to keep their own language, American Sign Language (ASL), which has its own grammar and own syntax. It even has regional accents.

"ASL is not just a language," says Stone. "It includes a culture. People who use that language are in that culture. It s a special group of people."

For Stone, ASL is her native tongue, the language she learned as a deaf child of deaf parents. English is her second language - the one she uses to read and write. Stone is an example of what s called bilingual-bicultural: fluent in both languages - ASL and English - and familiar with both worlds.

Technology, like cochlear implants, sort of a bionic hearing aid, is available - and improving. But these students say there's nothing wrong with the way they were born. "Why fix it?," says Sammy Oates. "Leave it. Leave our natural beauty. Let it be." That's deaf pride - and that s the attitude Rachel Stone wants the hearing world to understand and respect.

Says Stone: "It's OK to be deaf. It's OK to use sign language. Don't stop us from using it or from behaving like a deaf person."