The workshops at the American Association of the Deaf-Blind's national conference this week will include sessions on career development, new communications technologies and how to interact with the public. There will be classes in parenting, owning a business and starting a local program to develop volunteer helpers for those unable to see or hear.
But William Suggs Jr. has come for something more basic.
"I just wanted to see the different kinds of people and find out how they're doing," the 36-year-old Baltimore man, deaf since birth and going blind, said yesterday through a sign-language interpreter. "We've been communicating all day and all night."
In a phrase repeated by several participants, the hands were flying at Towson University yesterday, where 300 deaf and blind people have gathered from across the nation and as far away as India and Japan for the 27th biennial conference, which runs through Friday. They were a small fraction of the estimated 750,000 Americans with impaired hearing and vision, a community that leaders say remains isolated and marginalized among the broader public.
"There's a lot of discrimination, a lot of ignorance," said Art Roehrig, by forming sign language in the hands of a helper. "A lot of people think that deaf-blind people can't do much." Roehrig is president of the American Association of the Deaf-Blind.
Lydia Roth put it more plainly.
"If you're deaf-blind, a lot of people think you're mentally retarded," the Ellicott City woman said. "I'm tired of getting treated as if I were 10 years old."
The theme of improving communications with the general public underlies several workshops on the conference schedule, including a course on establishing local support-services-provider programs and a session on lobbying Congress.
"The purpose [of the conference] is for deaf-blind Americans to get together, network, learn [and] provide support," Jamie Pope, executive director of the American Association of the Deaf-Blind, said through an interpreter. "In their communities, they're very isolated. Here, they will learn how to advocate for themselves and spread awareness."
Other classes focus on innovations in medicine and technology, emergency preparedness and new legislation affecting air travel for the deaf-blind. Organizers have also scheduled shopping, a tour of the Inner Harbor, swimming and other activities.
Yesterday's activities began with Catholic, Protestant and Jewish worship services. At the Protestant service, lay minister Frank Spiker gave the message in sign language, flanked by two interpreters who gestured more emphatically. The congregation reflected the range of abilities in the community: some had hearing aids; others had interpreters signing in their hands. One woman read the message on a Braille display as it was typed by a helper.
Roth lost her sight as a child and is growing deaf. She is unable to hear higher frequencies, but she still is able to carry on a conversation, aided yesterday by her husband, James.
At the conference, Roth was hoping to learn about how she might get a seeing-eye dog trained to assist a person who is also deaf. But more broadly, she wanted to exchange ideas on dealing with everyday challenges in a society ill-prepared to handle those who are unable to see or hear.
"If you're blind, people can still deal with you," she said. "If you're deaf, they don't know how to communicate. If you're deaf-blind, you're really up a creek."
Developing support services providers - volunteers who are able to interpret for the deaf-blind and provide other support - is a priority for the community, Pope said. Her organization, which is headquartered in Silver Spring, is discussing establishing a national program that would set uniform standards for training and performance.
The Rev. Peggy A. Johnson is pastor of Christ United Methodist Church of the Deaf in Baltimore. She spoke of being inspired by her congregation.
"They are the treasure buried in the ocean," she said. "They are valuable souls, with ideas, creativity, and such trust. They see the good that's there. I'm always impressed with their ability to find a way, to try something that 100th time, after they've tried and failed the first 99 times."
Suggs knows what she means. Trained in data entry, he has been looking for work for 18 months, without success.
"I'm just trying to put up with it," said Suggs, who has worked as a dishwasher and a janitor but now lives on Social Security. "I'm trying not to complain, trying to keep a positive attitude, praying that God will help me."
In the meantime, he is working on his music. Suggs sings with his hands, both in Johnson's church and on Blessed Deaf/Blind Songs of Faith, a DVD that has sold 100 copies.
"I think God has given me this gift," he says after a balletic performance of "Holy, Holy, Holy." "I've seen this make people cry. Hearing people, too."