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Breaking the Silence

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James De Salvo was photographed by Bill Kirby as part of the CITY 2000 photodocumentary project. He is deaf and speaks mostly in sign language. I met him at his town house in Wheaton about two years ago, and we spoke with the help of his daughter Priscilla and son Rocco. We continued the interview by letter and finished last month.

My name is James De Salvo. In the picture it's midnight, January 1, 2000. We were at a convention of the West Suburban Association of the Deaf and CCE, the Chicago Catholic Ephpheta, another organization for deaf people. People from all over Chicago and Illinois went to a downtown hotel, I forget the name. There must have been 1,000 or 2,000 people--a lot! The woman's name is Marie. I hadn't seen her for a long time. She was my first date a long time ago, when I was in high school. She's not completely deaf, just hard-of-hearing. I met her there at the party and we began to waltz around the room.

My mother told me I was born deaf, but her sister says no, I was born hearing but then became deaf. The story they tell is that one day when I was very little, I was sitting with my mom, and my grandfather went behind me. Usually if you say something a kid turns his head, but I would never do that. So my grandfather went behind me and dropped a spoon really close, and dropped a whole bunch of things, and I wouldn't turn. So that's how they found out.

I grew up in Chicago, around Taylor Street. My parents immigrated from Italy and they settled in the Italian neighborhood, just to be around their own people. None of them could speak English. I was born there and raised there. That was before they built the University of Illinois. The neighborhood was much different then. We would open up the fire hydrants, play around all the time. There were always lots of people outside. They'd be cooking food outside; they would block off the streets and have block parties. There were lots of people who spoke only Italian. And just the next street was Roosevelt and it was all Jewish.

There were mobsters. We all knew who was who. But people minded their own business. The mobsters would be very friendly. If we were out late they would say, "What time is it now? Shouldn't you be going home?"

I was the only deaf kid in the neighborhood. I didn't know anything about sign language, but we were Italian, we used our hands, and I used a lot of action to express myself. Most of the kids were very understanding and willing to accept others. I had a lot of neighborhood friends who saw past the fact that I couldn't hear. They knew to pronounce their words slowly so I could read their lips. If that failed then I would just mimic what they were doing when we played games--eventually I would learn how to play.

The only times I felt left out were in school and academic settings. Teachers back then did not specialize in education for the handicapped. They were very impatient and got angry very quickly. They expected to teach a deaf person how to communicate a word without hearing how it is said. The teacher would turn around and write on the blackboard while she was talking, so I couldn't see her mouth. It was very hard to keep up. I would have to stay after school and copy pages of a textbook word for word, and that was supposed to be my "teacher." For high school I went to Lane Tech. They had more of an oral division for kids who were deaf or hard-of-hearing. But they didn't concentrate on deaf people or teach them like they do now--it was a completely different education system. They didn't teach us signing. They thought we had to learn how to say the words so hearing people could understand us. I never even knew there was such a thing as signing until I was almost 20 years old.

After high school I went to Southern Illinois University. It was not much different from high school, other than in high school I wasn't the only individual who couldn't hear. As far as I knew there weren't any other deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals at SIU. Most of them went to Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. At that time I had no knowledge of that college. At SIU the teachers were not very accepting of me as a deaf student. I remember one teacher saying, "What are you doing here?" It was hard to communicate and understand the points the teachers were trying to make. I tried to major in machine shop and work with engineers. I could pass the assignments, but since my math and reading skills weren't the best, I'd fail the tests. Eventually I flunked out of college and went back home.

It was very hard to find a job when I came back. Being deaf, I didn't have many options. I had to rely on my body and settle for a job with no future. I found a job in building construction. I worked on buildings in the Hillside Shopping Center, the projects at Western and Van Buren, something over on 35th and Halsted. But in construction you get laid off in the winter, you go back and forth. I decided I needed something steady, so I found a job at Zenith. I did assembly: TVs, radios, appliances. Ten years on and off, not very good pay. I wasn't satisfied. While I was there I was looking for another job, and I found one at UPS. It was very steady. But I had a supervisor who would talk about me behind my back, and they fired me. I felt it was discrimination.

For five years after that I had no job. Then my uncle found me a job at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, and I've been there for 23 years. I'm going to be 67 in May. Up until a couple years ago I was a laborer. It was physical, but there was nothing else I could do. But I had a heart problem, so I wanted a janitorial position and finally I got one. I want to work for 30 more years. I'd be bored if I retired.

The first time I saw deaf people signing was on the beach at North Avenue. I was working construction. We got let out early since it was too hot, and I went to swim and cool off. I saw four men moving their hands. They were about ten years older than me, so they had to be in their late 20s or early 30s. I was in awe. I had never seen anyone using sign language before. I wondered what they were doing. I ended up staring. While I was sitting on my towel watching them they looked over. I guessed they would be able to read my lips, and I asked if they were deaf. They motioned me over right away and introduced themselves. They invited me to many deaf functions, and they started teaching me how to sign. I learned by watching. If I didn't understand I would ask, What does this mean? or, How do you say this?

They also brought me to two deaf churches. I then knew there were others going through the same struggles I was going through. I began introducing deaf friends I went to high school with to the church. We were finally able to understand what actually went on during the mass instead of just standing there watching other people's mouths move. I felt very happy. I felt like I belonged to a community.

I still attend mass two or three times a month at Saint Francis Borgia on Addison. There's a priest there, Father Joe, whose grandparents were both deaf. Father Joe has been a service to the deaf community for many years. There's also a deaf assistant pastor, and we have a choir. Instead of singing they sign the hymns. I arrive early and socialize a little bit before mass with deaf and hard-of-hearing people. After mass there are refreshments and people are welcome to stay and socialize more. Both the religion and the socializing are important to me. I was born and raised Roman Catholic. I attend mass because I feel the need to learn about God. It is very important to me to have a connection with people also. It makes me happy to be able to share my thoughts and ideas.

The biggest deaf organization in the area is the West Suburban Association, WSAD. They usually have functions on Friday and Saturday nights. They meet at different area hotels. We play pool and darts. There are other clubs--CCE, Chicago Club of the Deaf, Southtown Club of the Deaf. They organize picnics, baseball games, and dances. When I was younger I was on a baseball and basketball team. But now I usually go to dances and picnics when I can. Recently a few club members decided to take a senior citizens trip to Iowa and spend some time at the casinos. I participated and had a lot of fun.

My daughter Priscilla is now 20, and my son Rocco is 18. My daughter works full-time at an insurance company and attends college part-time. My son is away in Marshall, Missouri, attending college full-time. I have been raising them alone since their mother and I divorced. They were six and four years old. Rocco and Priscilla do not keep in touch with their mother--their choice. Neither do I. I haven't seen her in a very long time.

It was very hard financially raising two children on my own. I remember going through some very hard times, but somehow we made it through. Being deaf makes it hard, as I am limited to the employment that is available to me. My kids are very bright, and I am thankful they were not always getting into a lot of trouble. They help me very much, when I need to communicate, or when I go to the doctor. We will be living in this new house for three years. My daughter and son helped me sell my old home and get this one.

My biggest regret is that I did not pursue my dream of owning my own business. I always wanted to have a little grocery store, or fruits and vegetables. Even if it was small, it would still be an accomplishment. There's still time to pursue my dream.

One of my greatest joys was that I was able to find a stable job. With an impairment it isn't always easy.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Kirby.

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