‘CODA’ is more than an Oscar winning movie at Sanderson Community Center, it’s part of lifeMay 02, 2022 09:03PM ● By Carl Fauver
: Stephen Persinger is deaf and has been a case manager at the Sanderson Community Center of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing since 2014. (Carl Fauver/City Journals)
By Carl Fauver | [email protected]
As Chris Rock was presumably icing his left cheek – and Will Smith was cradling his Best Actor Oscar, while peeking over his shoulder for LA’s finest – the briefly violent 94th annual Academy Awards ended on a heartwarming note, when an ailing Liza Minnelli announced “CODA” as the motion picture of the year. “Jazz hands” filled the Dolby Theater as the film’s makers made their way up on stage.
During two earlier CODA Oscar wins that night – for best supporting actor Troy Katsur and director Siân Heder’s adapted screenplay – we learned jazz hands are the sign for applause in the deaf community.
Here in Utah, Paul DeGraw and Stephen Persinger already knew that. The two work at Taylorsville’s Sanderson Community Center of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (5709 South 1500 West). A case manager at the center, Persinger is deaf himself. DeGraw is an interpreter/trainer at the center, with perfect hearing. Like the 17-year-old character in the film, Ruby Rossi (played by Emilia Jones), DeGraw is a CODA – Child of Deaf Adults.
“I thought they did a pretty good job of showing what it’s like to be a CODA,” DeGraw said. “My mom was born deaf and my dad lost his hearing at a very young age. American Sign Language was my first language.”
A 1993 Hillcrest High School graduate, Paul has four children, ages 11 to 2, with wife Julie. He is a strong advocate of parents teaching their kids at least a few basic ASL words and phrases when they are less than a year old – long before they can speak. DeGraw says it makes parenting much less stressful.
“My oldest could sign 40 different words at 10 months of age,” he said. “Instead of just crying, he could tell us if he was hungry or needed a diaper change. The longest sentence he knew was ‘I want to go to Grandma’s.’ I think ASL is a great tool at that young age. The kids have fewer temper tantrums.”
“CODA” began its journey to the best picture Academy Award here in Utah, a little over a year ago, when it premiered on opening night of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. That premiere was virtual, as the festival was held online-only due to the coronavirus pandemic. The movie earned a record four awards in the festival and was purchased by Apple TV+ for $25 million, another Sundance record.
But Apple didn’t make any of that $25 million back from Persinger.
“I signed up for a one-week free trial with Apple in order to see “CODA”,” Persinger said. “Then I cancelled it. But word was spreading all over the center and this deaf community at large that you had to see it. It was good.”
Persinger was born in Iowa, earned his high school degree in Kansas City (2006) and graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology (2010) in upstate New York. He’d never been to Utah until taking his position at the Sanderson Center in 2014. He and wife Mercy – an ASL teacher at Salt Lake’s Jean Massieu School of the Deaf – have a 2-year-old son and were expecting their first daughter at the end of April.
Stephen does not consider his deafness to be a “handicap” or even a “challenge.”
“I love being deaf,” he said, with DeGraw interpreting for him. “I don’t look at it as a bad thing. I would not wish for hearing. ASL is a completely different language than English. We are more direct, more blunt. We have our own poetry, our own jokes. And when you see someone else signing, you feel connected to them.”
DeGraw’s parents felt the same way.
“I once asked each of my parents whether they would take a pill to gain their hearing and they both said ‘no,’” DeGraw said. “They love their (deaf) culture and language. It’s like a brotherhood when a deaf person sees another deaf person signing.”
The National Institutes of Health (nih.gov) reports “fewer than 1 in 20 Americans are currently deaf or hard of hearing. In round numbers, nearly 10 million people are hard of hearing and close to one million are functionally deaf. More than half of all persons with hearing loss or deafness are age 65 or older, while fewer than 4% are under 18 years of age.”
At the moment, state officials are several months into a search for a new Sanderson Center Director.
"Hiring a director for Utah’s Division of Service of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing is a crucial decision,” Workforce Services spokesman Jared Mendenhall said. “The new director will guide the division and the Sanderson Center for years to come. Due to the highly specialized nature of this position, finding a new director will require a thorough nationwide search. We are committed to hiring an effective, dynamic leader to strengthen and serve Utah’s deaf and hard of hearing community."
The Sanderson Community Center features 71,000 square feet of meeting and conference room space, lecture halls, a large basketball court and multipurpose area and several other amenities. Its Taylorsville campus is a spacious six acres.
For more information about the state-run center, visit www.jobs.utah.gov/usor/dhh.