Paula Matlins remembers what it’s like to be unable to communicate.
As a young girl, she had a terrible speech impediment. She was assigned to her neighborhood school, the Mary Snow School, which was also where, at that time, the Bangor school district placed all the deaf children. It was there that Matlins discovered what would become her calling.
“Those were the children that never picked on me, because they couldn’t hear my speech impediment,” she recalled. “Learning sign language [at Mary Snow] was a wonderful option that I took advantage of.”
Matlins, program director for Community Life at Amicus in Bangor, was first exposed to signing at age 5, then she began doing workshops on American Sign Language and “becoming completely involved in my early 20s. So it’s been about 20 years I’ve been doing this.”
Those early experiences led to her life’s work.
“My earliest years of verbal communication were filled with frustration and a desire to be understood,” she said. “When I entered Mary Snow school, I was lucky enough to be teamed with Deaf children during play and speech therapy. In them I found people who like me were trying to be understood. The difference is they were working equally hard if not harder to understand in addition. That is where my passion for communication started. My life’s work is based in communication. Those around me who work to bridge communication inspire me.”
Her longtime efforts to spread the gospel of ASL, the fourth most used language in the world, recently earned Matlins the Promoting American Sign Language, Deaf Culture and Deaf People Award at the annual Deaf Culture Tea Awards, held Sept. 20 at the Hall of Flags at the Capitol building in Augusta.
Earlier this year, Matlins was told that she might be nominated for the award by an advisory board of the Commission for Deaf, Hard of Hearing and Late-Deafened, but she immediately put in out of her mind. Then she found out the week before the ceremony that she was receiving the award.
Her introduction at the ceremony by her friend Romy Spitz, also a member of that advisory board, succinctly summed up Matlins’ work.
“Paula is receiving this award because of her outreach and sign language support in the Bangor area. She has single-handedly created a viable signing program at Amicus in Bangor for deaf, hard-of-hearing & non-verbal clients. Several staff at Amicus have been encouraged to learn to sign, expanding Paula’s influence even further. She is an advocate and asset to our community.
Regardless of which hat Paula is wearing, interpreter, deaf community supporter, supporter for adults with intellectual disabilities who use signs and gestures, or in her work with the Aging and Disability Resources Centers, she has been a tireless advocate for Deaf people in the Bangor area and fervently promotes signing and deaf culture in many areas.
“She has taught adult education sign language classes incorporating local Deaf signers and arranged workshops so that sexual assault victim’s advocates know and understand how best to support a Deaf person in their hour of need. She has led efforts to find funding for campers at Camp Sign-A-Watha and has kept Peer Support Group open for Bangor’s signing adults with intellectual disabilities. She is a true, natural, ebullient promoter of Deaf and signing people and I am proud to call her my friend.”
Matlins appreciates the practical value of sign language.
“It’s thrilling to see someone without language become independent in the community, using a language that’s functional,” she said.
Among the efforts that Matlins has established to promote ASL, the fourth most used language in the world, are monthly peer support groups for sign language users with intellectual disabilities, signing staff members at Amicus, presentations to community agencies about ASL and sign and dines, voices-off outings to area restaurants at which signers and deaf people can socialize.
Matlins made sure to explain the differences between Deaf people and deaf people: “Deaf people are culturally deaf. They have hearing loss, are sign users, many of whom went to deaf schools and are proud of the label. Small d deaf people is somebody who may be late deafened, does not use sign as their primary language and use technology and their voice to communicate.”
Matlins seemed overwhelmed by the award.
“I felt awkward to receive the award, because the Deaf community has given me some much,” she said. “I felt that I should be rewarding them. The support I get here at Amicus is incredible.”
For more information about any of these above-mentioned programs, contact Paula Matlins at 941-2915 (phone), 812-2899 (video phone), 941-2888 (fax) or firstname.lastname@example.org.