As a Deaf woman, the first thing that came to my mind when the Twin Towers collapsed was, “Who is going to communicate with the Deaf New Yorkers? How will we know exactly what happened and what will happen next?”
Thanks to text pagers, Deaf people communicated with each other and kept each other informed. Whatever was happening, the Deaf stayed in touch on a one-to-one basis and they updated each other as to the missing and the injured. They told each other, with fingers flying on tiny keyboards, how many firefighters were missing and how the Police were handling the street level crises arising from the terrorist strike. Many of my Deaf friends told me their Hearing families and friends outside of New York would page them and ask where they were when it happened and if they were OK.
For the literate Deaf who know how to spell and who can type on an American keyboard, that sort of instant text communication was fine, but what about the Deaf from other countries who did not know how to spell in English? New York City has a huge immigrant Deaf population and many of them have no language whatsoever. What about the illiterate Deaf and the Deaf who are developmentally disabled or mentally ill or are so poor they cannot afford a text pager? How would these disenfranchised Deaf ever get a feeling of knowledge and safety?
I found the answer in Project Liberty. Project Liberty is a program sponsored by the State of New York that helps anyone and everyone who is having a hard time coping. Project Liberty paid me, as a Deafness professional, to travel to Deaf people’s homes and talk to them one-on-one and in groups about what happened on September 11th.
I went to a Senior Citizen’s building in the East Village in Manhattan where there were many Deaf people living. I met with them every month long after Sept 11th and we talked as if it happened yesterday. There were so many issues on their mind but they question they asked, and continue to ask is: “Why? Why did they do this?”
I didn’t and still don’t really know the answer, so I asked them what they thought…
They replied with words like “hatred,” “religion,” “jealousy,” “money,” and “pride.” These Senior Citizens were very intellectual and well-educated and they brought their newspapers and other information to the meetings. One citizen was in Germany when the attack happened and she showed us her German newspaper with images of the terrible tragedy. We found comfort sharing our experiences and fears with each other and we all felt a bond after each meeting.
I also went to the Bronx where I had the same sort of meeting with the Deaf but I handled it differently. The Deaf in the Bronx that I knew could not read and write English. Some were developmentally disabled so only some information could get through them.
Many could not understand the concept of Anthrax and other topics like “dirty nuclear device” but they were just as affected and just as upset and they wanted to understand as much as they could. With these people I brought pictures from different magazines and newspapers because they were better able to relate to images instead of words.
An image not only speaks a thousand words, it speaks those words universally through the context of the eye alone. The eye, in this case, needs no interpreter nor sentence grammar nor syntax to get the point across. Images of people running and helping each other assisted the Bronx Deaf in being prepared (if you can call it that) for the future if we are struck again.
I also went to another Deaf building in Manhattan closer to the actual site of the tragedy. These people were not developmentally disabled but they did not read and write well. They were intellectually and emotionally pretty much in the middle of the two previous groups I met.
I also brought pictures of the Twin Towers to this group and also images of what happened afterwards like the impromptu memorials in Union Square park. I put the images on the walls like a timeline collage of what happened. Some picture sequences had an event that showed pictures of every second of the Towers falling. I would explain what happened and what the newspaper said in each picture. The people would ask several questions about who, what, when and why. That was such a hot and emotional topic, many times people would talk at the same time. Many showed frustration and some were relieved after talking about it.
One Deaf resident worked in the World Trade Center. He made it out of the building alive only because a co-worker thought fast and went back in the building to get him after everyone had already evacuated. That worker tapped him on the shoulder and motioned for him to follow him out of the building. The Deaf resident almost died when the buildings came down because he didn’t to move far enough away once he got outside! No one moved far enough, really.
Everyone ran for their lives that day and they ran only moments after feeling safe they got out of the building alive. I heard this Deaf resident was having a hard time coping with his feelings of mortality. I sent him letters and visited him at home for six months before he finally agreed to come to a public meeting and share his experiences. He told me after the group meeting he wished he’d come sooner — he would have felt so much better faster.
If Project Liberty hadn’t been involved with their support and money, there is no way my involvement and the involvement of other professionals in the Deaf community could have sustained contact for so long.
Sometimes after the meeting you knew one or two people were still upset and needed to talk. We encouraged them to talk to us privately one-on-one and to get professional counseling.
I often had one or two people with me at those meetings who worked professionally with the Deaf Community. Those people knew American Sign Language and were able to communicate with the group. We professionals also had one-on-one sessions for the Deaf available in their homes as well as in their building’s meeting rooms for group sessions.
I didn’t get involved with Project Liberty only for the Deaf Community. I needed the experience for myself, too. I worked near Union Square and that was pretty close to Ground Zero.
Sometimes it was difficult to reserve my feelings or emotions when there were discussions about topics that hit me more than others like the injustice and the stupidity of killing people who did not directly to you.
I was fortunate to have my co-workers to talk about everything and vice versa. We did our best to keep each other sane.
I, however, still feel violated and raw a year after.
I have yet to visit Ground Zero.
It’s just too hard right now. I don’t know if I’ll ever visit.
Unfortunately, Ground Zero is, but should never have become, a stop on the tourist’s checklist.
I’m thrilled and grateful that Project Liberty provided a means for the Deaf Community to heal. People tend to forget us.
There are agencies that serve the Deaf that become preoccupied with service reports, grant proposals and trying to increase their business profits — and they forget the Deaf Population and their emotional needs in times of national crisis. That’s easy to do when your eye is on the bottom line instead of fixed on the people in front of you.
Project Liberty did not forget.
Project Liberty was an enriching experience for me and it helped me keep going now that a year has passed. Through the suffering of others, Project Liberty allowed everyone some space to heal. I’m able to stand proudly for what I was able to do for Project Liberty and for what the Deaf Community was able to do for me.
Project Liberty is still alive and growing and helping all sorts of people cope, not just the Deaf. If you need help, please visit their website for more information.