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Food Court Is Deaf Community Center

February 10, 2007

All Ages Gather To Connect — Even Find Love

By Barbara Isaacs

Matt Goins

Ed Richardson, 83, wore a hat that says UK in American Sign Language.

More photos

It’s like every other social gathering, with plenty of hugs, smiles, waves and non-stop chatter.

But at the Silent Social, there’s no noisy din — the greetings and conversations are all in American Sign Language.

Two Friday evenings a month for nearly a decade, Central Kentucky’s deaf community — black and white, from babies to senior citizens — has gathered at the Fayette Mall food court.

On a recent Friday, the event drew more than 70 people, most of them deaf or hard of hearing. The social usually draws at least a few dozen deaf people and also a sprinkling of hearing people who know American Sign Language, such as people who teach area deaf students or who work as American Sign Language interpreters.

For many of the attendees, the event is a long-standing tradition and a social focal point.

“When we meet, it’s like our calendar,” said Lexington’s Chuck Whitlow, 49, a deaf man who speaks and signs. “It’s how we know what’s going to happen … It’s a community center.”

Paula Wiese, now director of the Blue Grass Council of the Blind, was one of the founders of the social.

Ten years ago, she was taking a class in American Sign Language at Lexington Community College. She and other students in the class set up the first social, which was held on the first Friday of March 1997, as a class assignment. The idea was to give the students a chance to practice American Sign Language and interact with deaf people.

The deaf community embraced the concept, and the gathering has been held on the first and third Fridays of every month since.

Lexington’s Kimberly Fugate, 18, a senior at Dunbar High School, can hardly remember a time when she didn’t attend the social — she’s been a regular attendee since the fifth grade.

“I think it’s important for me to come,” Fugate said. “I’m proud of my culture and proud to be deaf. It shows people in public that we can get out and do things.”

Fugate, like many deaf people, speaks and signs; she generally does both at the same time. Most people at the Silent Social just sign because that’s the idea: conversing without speaking.

“People think if you sign, you can’t talk,” Fugate said. “It bothers me when people misinterpret that.”

Romances have budded here — there are always lots of teens and college-age kids in attendance, Wiese said.

The Silent Social also draws multiple generations, even within the same family.

Kimberly Yarnell, 20, of Danville, comes to the social not only to see friends but also to hang out with her extended family who are deaf.

“My mom, uncle, sister — the whole family is here,” Yarnell said. “We’re a totally deaf family.” Yarnell has her two sons with her, Garrin, 2, and Gavin, 2 months. Both of the children can hear; she’s amazed that both she and her sister have hearing children.

Yarnell said the social is a family tradition now.

“We are a proud deaf family,” she said. “That’s how we keep the culture alive and keep deaf culture alive,” she said of the frequent gatherings.

Oscar Hamilton, 68, a Lexington retiree, said he’s rarely missed a social since it began.

“Really, it keeps us together,” he said. “We learn so much from each other. You see new faces and meet new people.”

The event is also a resource for people who serve deaf people, such as Andy Warmack, 39, who works with the deaf ministry at Lexington’s Immanuel Baptist Church. “The deaf community is pretty small, and they like to take advantage of this,” Warmack said. He said it’s also a useful way of getting information out to the deaf community.

American Sign Language students still use the gathering as a resource. Christa Harmon, 23, of Waddy, is a Kentucky State University student who is taking an American Sign Language class. She said she’s been to the social several times and people have been willing to help her learn. “It’s been a really good experience,” she said.twice a month, there’s a ‘silent social’ at the mall


Silent Social
What: Gathering of deaf people and hearing people interested in American Sign Language

When: About 6 or 6:30 p.m., first and third Fridays of every month

Where: Fayette Mall food court