AUGUSTA — More than 100 deaf, hard of hearing, blind and deaf-blind people marched Wednesday at the State House in support of equal rights as part of the Deaf Grassroots Movement.

The Deaf Grassroots Movement is a national organization founded last September to “help make deaf civil rights laws better now” and for future generations. The group held similar rallies in every state capital across the country Wednesday.

Larissa Pelletier, of South China, is the Maine representative. Through an interpreter, she said the Maine group is focused on language rights, communication access, education, employment and jobs and equal accessibility.

The demonstrators, many of whom were wearing matching green shirts with civil-rights related slogans on them, walked around the State House and the Cross State Office Building, drawing cheers and honks from passing drivers. Demonstrators waved and gave the universal sign of appreciation, the thumbs-up.

Pelletier said employment oppression is a big problem in the deaf community. She has worked for the federal government for 27 years and has received only one promotion, despite applying for a dozen other positions, and she thinks it’s because she’s deaf.

“I am capable, and I can do everything, but those in management positions don’t recognize it,” Pelletier said. “All they see is the deafness, and that’s why we’re out here.”

Pelletier and public relations officer Curt Barsness said it is time that the hearing world wakes up the capabilities of the deaf community. She said a stigma still exists about deafness, especially with some people thinking it’s contagious.

“Oh, yes, a stigma still exists,” Pelletier said. “Someone in my family has always given me a wide berth because of my deafness.”

The existing civil rights laws, Pelletier said, need to be strengthened, and the Deaf Grassroots Movement is willing to partner with legislatures to improve on the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was passed in 1990.

“Technology has changed and the issues and barriers have changed,” Pelletier said. “We think it’s past time for an update.”

Pelletier said one of the group’s major focus is on LEAD-K, Language Equality Acquisition for Deaf Children, so that deaf children arrive in kindergarten language-ready.

“What normally happens is parents are led down a path of auditory rehabilitation or implantation and the kids get no language access,” Pelletier said, “so when they get to kindergarten, they are already way behind. We need deaf children to be exposed to sign language.”

Among the demonstrators was a group of American Sign Language students from the University of Maine at Augusta.

Several other demonstrators indicated their willingness to talk about the problems they see and the oppression they face because of their deafness, but they were told to let Pelletier and Barsness speak on their behalf.

Barsness echoed Pelletier’s comments about oppression and said the deaf community sees oppression in three main areas — education, communication access and employment.

“We feel frustration because we are only able to get low, menial jobs, even though we can do so much more,” Barsness said through an interpreter. “We are very qualified.”

Barsness said he is sure that the deaf in other countries face similar oppression, but he would not compare rights of the deaf in the U.S. to those of other nations.

“I am focusing on what we need in America right now,” Barsness said. “We need work, we need education and we need language communication.”

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

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