Deaf activist with AIDS virus alerts others to danger

October 07, 1990|By Jonathan Bor

Whisk away the past five years. Forget everything that radio, television, newspapers and word-of-mouth communication have said about AIDS since then. It's 1985. In the nation's cities, the death toll is mushrooming. Rock Hudson, having looked drawn and frail for many months, is now dead.

The disease has been around for half a decade, but a slowly awakening nation finds the epidemic impossible to ignore. Everywhere, people want answers: How do people get AIDS? From food, swimming pools and toilet seats or just from sex? Should I worry about touching a friend with AIDS?

Today, these questions seem elementary. But today, these are the questions that people are asking Harry Woosley, a Baltimore social worker who is busy teaching important concepts about the disease to people in bars and social clubs, in his office and their homes.

Mr. Woosley is a deaf man teaching other deaf people about acquired immune deficiency syndrome -- a disease he knew little about in January when a doctor shocked him with the news that he had tested positive for the AIDS virus. Then, he learned quickly. Like many deaf activists, Mr. Woosley fears the virus is spreading quickly but silently among other deaf people who, in their isolation from mainstream culture, sat quietly on the sidelines during the explosion of AIDS information that swept the United States during the past several years.

"Many of the things people tend to ask me are related to food and touching," Mr. Woosley, a large, animated man who wears a colorful skullcap, said the other day through an interpreter.

"I feel the deaf are really behind in understanding how it can be carried sexually, through the fluids. The deaf are behind; they're about five years behind.

"Most deaf tend to dwell on the thought that only gays and lesbians get AIDS, just like five years ago."

In an era when AIDS information has crept into soap operas, school curriculums and commuter bus advertisements, the basic concepts about AIDS may seem hard to escape.

But for Mr. Woosley and others steeped in the subculture of deafness, it is frustrating but hardly surprising that many deaf people are caught in a time warp of misconceptions.

The barrier is language. Deaf people communicate through the visual imagery of sign language, closer in its structure and syntax to Chinese than it is to English.

Although many hearing people assume that deaf people can read newspapers and magazines, Mr. Woosley said the average deaf person read at a fifth-grade level or lower.

What this means, he said, is that many deaf people are cut off not only from radio and daily word-of-mouth encounters with hearing people, but also from newspapers, television, magazines, brochures and other vehicles carrying the message of AIDSprevention through the written or spoken word.

"The advertisements with the big words and the sentences, the deaf don't understand it," said Mr. Woosley, 49, a social worker who earneda college degree at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y.

"The English isn't their language. Theirs is a sign language."

In Australia, the Deaf Society of New South Wales developed what many deaf activists in the United States consider to be a modelbrochure for hearing-impaired people.

The cover is a display of letters from deaf clients, each expressing in fragmented, broken English their confusion about the disease.

"Dear AIDS Educator," reads one of the letters. "Me confused me see hear too much about AIDS but nothing clear explain. AIDS means what? HIV means what? How know me have AIDS. Yes? No? Can't, why me, not gay. Right?"

For several months, Mr. Woosley has been working as a volunteer for the Family Services Foundation in Northwest Baltimore, an organization that provides mental health and addiction services to deaf people throughout the area.

The profoundly deaf make up a small slice of society -- there are 37,000 in Maryland, less than 1 percent of the general population.

Mr. Woosley spends his time discussing AIDS with healthy deaf people and counseling infected clients who are struggling with their lack of knowledge and with a medical system geared mainly for patients who can hear.

Occasionally, he accompanies deaf patients on their visits to doctors, helping to mend the discomfort and bridge the confusion that may exist between doctor and patient. He has even found himself in the unusual position of reinterpreting the sign language of a hospital interpreter, who may have trouble bringing a doctor's clinical language to a level of grass-roots understanding.

He hopes also to train deaf people to serve as volunteer "buddies" for other deaf people stricken with AIDS.

Mr. Woosley operates in relative obscurity, and Family Services Foundation officials are looking for grant money so that they can pay him and expand the scope of his work.

But he is not completely alone in his efforts. Yesterday, Johns Hopkins Hospital hosted the first AIDS workshop for the deaf ever to take place in Baltimore.

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