The Mitchell Daily Republic: Sign-language town: Deaf man works to build city from scratch

Friday, March 18, 2005

By Seth Tupper, The Daily Republic

SALEM - For somebody who doesn�t talk, Marvin Miller sure knows how to be heard.

The 33-year-old deaf man is attracting national attention with his effort to build a sign-language town at the Salem exit of Interstate 90. So far, he has won support from government officials, lined up investors to finance construction, and signed up 92 families to move in. He�s on the verge of building a city from scratch, and he�s done it all without uttering a word.

Miller uses an interpreter to communicate with non-signers, and he compensates for his lack of speech with an abundance of physical expression. His quick smile and sense of humor have eased his transition from outsider to local businessman in his temporary home at Salem, where he has won over many skeptics.

Now, with his sales pitch completed, Miller is at a critical juncture. He and his team will turn their dreams into designs at a master-planning workshop next week (see related story), and many deaf and hard-of-hearing people are counting on Miller to turn his talk - or signing, as it were - into action.

�Their feeling is, �Please don�t tease us if you can�t make it happen,� � he said.

Inspiration and frustration

Miller has always believed he can and will make it happen. He believes his purpose in life is to realize the goal he set about five years ago: building a town that deaf and hard-of-hearing people can call their own.

The idea crystallized while Miller was at a personal and professional crossroads. After co-founding a national newspaper called DeafNation, he sold out to a dot-com company and stayed on as chief content officer. But when the company suffered financial trouble, he was laid off.

With a wife, Jennifer, and four children, Miller moved from Las Vegas back to his native Michigan to live with relatives. While he was pondering his next move, he began thinking seriously about building a town for deaf people. He envisioned an immersive sign-language environment where communication problems would no longer stand in the way of business, social and civic opportunities.

He discussed the idea at length with his hearing mother-in-law, M.E. Barwacz, who would eventually become his business partner. She put him in touch with a college professor who had experience in philanthropy and city planning.

The professor was supportive. He told Miller to work hard and honestly and stay true to his vision; if he did, the professor said, people would follow his lead. The professor also gave Miller a book: �The Death and Life of Great American Cities.�

Reading the book was a transformative experience for Miller. He learned about the principles of New Urbanism, a philosophy of town planning that includes compact and �walkable� city blocks, multi-use buildings, houses with front porches and other elements designed to create a sense of community. He began to think New Urbanism was the perfect approach for building a close-knit community of signers.

Around the same time, Miller was becoming increasingly frustrated with the education system in Michigan. The state�s funding mechanism caused public schools to lose money if their deaf and hard-of-hearing students transferred to the state School for the Deaf, Miller said. Consequently, the School for the Deaf�s enrollment was declining while hundreds of potential deaf and hard-of-hearing students struggled in public schools.

Miller thought the children would be better served at the School for the Deaf. Interpreters at public schools are sometimes not as skilled in sign language, Miller said. As a consequence, deaf children at public schools do not always �hear� everything their teachers say. Additionally, public-schooled deaf children often suffer from feelings of isolation: Whenever they want to communicate with their hearing peers, they have to call over an adult interpreter. And the isolation can lead to lowered confidence and inadequate social skills.

Miller wanted to help move deaf and hard-of-hearing children into the School for the Deaf. But the state-run school, he said, was prohibited from promoting itself. He considered fighting for change, but he knew his efforts could be undone in instant. The school was at the mercy of non-signing bureaucrats and politicians.

�We were powerless to change anything,� Miller said.

Decision and action

So Miller decided to build a town where deaf and hard-of-hearing people could assume responsibility for their own lives and families. With support from his wife and help from Barwacz, he went to work.

His interest in South Dakota was inspired partly by the success of Communication Service for the Deaf, a Sioux Falls-based company with a national reach. His original plan was to convince CSD officials to help him build the town.

CSD leaders received Miller warmly and even employed him for about two years, but they were not ready to act on his idea. He decided to stay in South Dakota, because he was convinced the state�s low population would allow people in his town greater political influence. He also liked the tax structure and the opportunity to build along tourist-heavy Interstate 90.

He resigned his position at CSD and began working full-time on his dream in January of last year. He and Barwacz decided the town would be named Laurent, after Laurent Clerc, who brought sign language from France to the United States. They formed The Laurent Company, zeroed in on I-90 locations near Salem, and began networking.

They conducted a public meeting in Salem and informational meetings for deaf and hard-of-hearing people around the country. In November, Miller said, they connected with a �huge angel group of investors.� Backing from a Salem bank followed. They won support from the McCook County Commission despite concerns about Laurent�s potentially negative economic impact on Salem, the town of about 1,400 people located three miles north of the Laurent site.

But Miller�s personal skills helped ease the fears. At a second public meeting in Salem this year, nobody spoke out against the project. Miller and his family and Barwacz now live in Salem, and they and several employees have settled into an office on Main Street.

The Laurent Company currently has options to buy two parcels of land in the southeast corner of the I-90/U.S. Highway 81 intersection. The parcels total about 275 acres, and more land options are being pursued.

A Michigan firm has been hired to lead the master planning workshop beginning Sunday at CSD-owned Camp Lakodia near Madison. The Laurent Company will emerge next Saturday with a comprehensive set of drawings and detailed plans for its town, and Miller hopes to begin building in the fall.

Historic impact

If Miller�s dream comes true, it will be a historic achievement.

The town would be the first of its kind since a centuries-old community of signers on Martha�s Vineyard faded away in the 1950s. Laurent will be open to all people, both hearing and deaf, but plans call for sign-language to be used in every public place. Specialized emergency alert systems, high-tech videoconferencing systems and other signer-friendly components will be incorporated in the town�s design.

By living together in their own place, Miller said, signers will not become isolated. Instead, they will finally have full access to life. Signers, he hopes, will be politicians, police officers, entrepreneurs and more. As Miller wrote in his concept paper, Laurent could be a catalyst for deaf and hard-of-hearing people �to stop renting space on the stage of life.�

Eventually, Miller hopes to build more sign-language towns. He believes, as part of his Mormon faith, that he is fulfilling his purpose: He is building a place where he and others like him can finally be heard.

�I�ve always felt it strongly,� Miller said, �and I�ve had conversations with my heavenly father about what I wanted to do on this earth. And this is it.�

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