By MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
TRAVERSE CITY — When she came to Traverse City 16 years ago, Tammy Weber found an active deaf community.
A local movie theater showed captioned films once a month, and a "deaf club" had regular get-togethers.
Now all that's changed, said Weber, a Detroit-area native who was born deaf. The theater stopped its captioning, deaf friends moved away, the club and its activities dwindled.
"It slowly grew to a smaller community and this year it's the smallest it's ever been," said Weber, a culinary arts student at Northwestern Michigan College (NMC). "I don't even know if we'll have a meeting at all this year. I feel really lonely."
A lack of accessible social opportunities is just one of the problems people who are hearing impaired say they face in the region. Others include limited public access and technology, few American Sign Language (ASL) learning opportunities, and difficulty obtaining communication services at certain health care providers.
Angela Whittaker grew up in Traverse City and moved back a few years ago after living in places like California, New York and Texas. She believes the deaf communities in those states are better educated about their rights to interpretive services under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and about newer technologies, such as video relay services, available for home use.
As a result, many doctor's offices and businesses in Traverse City are not complying with the ADA and the law, she said, and people with hearing impairments are not getting the services they need.
"In California and New York they know their rights," she said. "Even regular stores or employment all knew about the deaf community and how to get an interpreter."
Creating more accessible events that would encourage interaction between the deaf and hearing communities could attract more deaf people to the region, Weber said. It would also make those who are already here feel more welcome, said Leanne Baumeler, a disabilities support services specialist at NMC and coordinator of Grand Traverse Industries' Lis'n service, which provides interpreters for those who are hearing impaired.
"My friends who are deaf don't feel welcomed anywhere because everything's auditory," Baumeler said. "They can go to a brew fest ... but all the announcements are auditory. It's like watching TV with the sound off, so they just stay home."
Baumeler believes community access for those with hearing impairments has "improved tremendously" since she moved to the area in the late 1980s but still has a long way to go. She estimates there are about 150 sign language users in the region and many more with hearing loss who don't sign.
"There's much more willingness for companies to hire sign language interpreters to make their services accessible to people but there are still so many that don't understand the law or their obligation," she said. Other changes some in the area would like to see are community-centered rather than college-based sign language classes and video remote technology in local hospitals.
Munson Medical Center is testing a video interpretive service at Munson Family Practice Center, said Bonnie Schreiber, Munson's director of risk management. The service will support both the hearing impaired community and the limited English-proficient populations by providing the option of face-to-face interpreter communication via video connection. Eventually it will be implemented in the rest of the hospital.
Currently Munson uses sign language interpreters from a local agnecy when needed, or -- if alternatives aren't immediately available -- staff use non-verbal sign boards to communicate, she said.
Baumeler points to Lis'n as one example of community access improvement. Others include the 2004 installation of a public video phone in the lobby of Michigan WORKS! and Lis'n's partnership with Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department to teach emergency signs to first responders.
Then there's the effort by MOPIX TC to raise $30,000 -- $10,000 of which has already been pledged -- for a closed captioning and narration system for the State Theatre.
"It's definitely on the list of future improvements for the theater but there's no time frame for it," said Deb Lake, executive director of the Traverse City Film Festival, which owns the theater. Both the State and the festival line up ASL interpreters for special events.