DALLAS (AP) — The lights flicker in a community room at the Deaf Action Center in Dallas. The 50 or so deaf people in the audience turn their attention to Heather Bise. Her fingers crunch inward and burst outward as she launches into a presentation in sign language.
She polls the audience. How many of them have been denied an interpreter at a doctor's appointment? About half raise their hands. Bise, who is also deaf, nods. She's fighting against this type of discrimination, called "audism."
"When deaf people experience these challenges, many deaf people just take it," Bise says, hitting her chest as she signs. "That's going to bring the deaf community down. We have to fight for our rights."
Bise and other advocates for the deaf say many facilities aren't following a federal law that requires equal access for the deaf and people who are hard of hearing. Those who are deaf are left struggling to communicate in some of life's most crucial moments. Some hospitals, for example, expect deaf patients to read lips or write notes instead of providing a sign language interpreter.
And Bise has noticed that audism has become more of a problem since the recession. Providing interpreting or real-time transcription services costs money, and many facilities don't want to pay. Increasingly, deaf people have had to fight for the rights they're entitled to by law.
Bise is among the estimated 840,000 Texans who are deaf or hard of hearing, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
She was born with a hearing loss and didn't learn to sign until adulthood. As a child, she used a hearing aid, learned to speak English and attended mainstream schools. But she struggled with academics and got in trouble with teachers because she couldn't hear.
At the University of North Texas, large lecture halls made reading her professors' lips nearly impossible. Bise grew frustrated. She thought about quitting school. When the college referred her to the office of disabilities, she balked at the handicap sticker on the wall. "That's not me," she thought.
But when she saw how well two students communicated while signing, she realized she wanted to learn. She became fluent in American Sign Language — a language she prefers over English. "I found my way into the deaf world, and I found my happy spot," she said.
In deaf culture, deafness is seen not as a disability but as a source of pride. Bise, 33, is engaged to a deaf man. She attends a deaf church. She understands the nuances of deaf culture — that widening her eyes and leaning forward shows concern; that deaf people highly value acquiring information from one another because they can't always get it from television, radio or other sources that serve the hearing world.
Bise knows she may have deaf children one day. And she loves the idea. But she worries about their future: "Are they going to be taken advantage of?"
As a deafness resource specialist at the Deaf Action Center, Bise sees about 80 clients a month to resolve discrimination complaints. She acts as a mediator between the deaf and hearing worlds — listening to clients' needs and advocating on their behalf.
Bise assists domestic violence victims when police choose to use the batterer as the interpreter. She gets calls about courts that want to use a child to interpret for deaf parents. She explains to doctors that writing notes won't work because deaf people often prefer signing to English, which they consider a second language.
Howard Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, sees this resistance nationally. Doctors and lawyers are often most reluctant, he said, but the problem pervades all fields. "Many service providers (think) it is not mandatory or worthwhile to provide such communication access," Rosenblum said.
But providing services is mandatory under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The law says facilities that serve the public cannot discriminate because of a disability and must provide reasonable accommodations. For public places such as hospitals or courtrooms, that can mean paying for the appropriate communication services.
Reluctance to provide them often stems from financial concerns. Before the economy took a turn for the worse, Bise filed about one complaint each month. Now, she files five times as many. "It boils down to money," she said.
But can economic issues trump the law? Audism may help explain the "tremendous pushback" Bise encounters.
Some deaf people wonder why they are expected to pay for their interpreters, when those who use wheelchairs are not expected to bring their own elevators. Federal law requires equal access for both groups.
"A deaf person without access to the full services of the hospital is being denied just as someone in a wheelchair without a ramp," said Dirksen Bauman, professor at Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf and hard of hearing.
And with today's technology, sign language interpreters can be on hand through video relay services. "There is less and less an excuse of availability," Bauman said.
Bise has taken it upon herself to combat audism. She speaks perfect English but uses sign language to advocate for clients. And she chooses to order her nonfat caramel latte at Starbucks by typing on her iPhone.
"It's my teachable moment," Bise said. "If I go in and use my voice, who learns anything from that?"