“Signing On” advance screening on Saturday

Anita Buel (left) and Nancy Meyers (right)

UPDATED 2/11/2011: "Signing On" is a documentary featuring the unrecognized healthcare needs of the deaf community in a predominantly hearing world. The inspiration for the film came from Anita Buel, a breast cancer survivor who lived in the only world she knew - American Sign Language (ASL). After an interview with a local TV station made her a contact for deaf women across the country, she was overwhelmed with requests for help and information. Recognizing how important an informative, bilingual documentary would be for both deaf women battling breast cancer and their doctors, Anita and co-producer Nancy Meyers made this film.

Signing On will screen at Jeanne d'Arc Auditorium in Whitby Hall of St. Catherine University, 2004 Randolph Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota at 7 p.m. on Saturday, February 12. A reception and program will take place before the screening in the Rauenhorst Ballroom, from 5-6:30 p.m. Ticket information at http://www.screenporchfilms.com/SigningOn/Screenings.html (A 3 p.m. screening sold out quickly, so check for ticket availability and order on-line.)

From being born a blue baby to overcoming breast cancer and enduring years of chemotherapy treatment, Buel has persevered. As a child, Buel was mistakenly diagnosed as mentally retarded until doctors discovered, when she was six years old, that she was deaf. Her parents, like 95 percent of hearing parents of deaf children, did not know how to communicate with their own daughter, though they supported her in learning ASL. At a young age, Buel learned lip reading, which helped her decipher the contents of a conversation. Later, she learned ASL at Gallaudet University. However, it was still like being in a separate world because she was unable to communicate with family members and later on, doctors.

At age 29, Buel felt a lump in one of her breasts, and consulted a doctor. The doctor told her she was too young to have breast cancer and made no recommendations about treatment. Because of the lack of translation, Buel did not get good answers from the doctor and did not know her own family's medical history very well.

After two years, Buel sough advice from a deaf friend who had gone through breast cancer. Her friend asked if she had gotten a mammogram. Puzzled, Buel signed, "What is a mammogram?" After her friend explained, Buel returned to doctors. They said she was too young to have cancer and that a mammogram was not required until age 40 unless breast cancer ran in her family. She persisted, and eventually was diagnosed with breast cancer. Years later, in 2008, when Buel's daughter faced breast cancer, she learned that her family carried the BRAC1 (breast cancer type 1) gene.

During the time when she was struggling with doctors and diagnosis, Buel withdrew from the deaf community for about ten years. The sign for breast cancer was to physically make a slicing motion of the breast which was extremely offensive to her. Feeling stigmatized, she isolated herself. It wasn't until later that she realized the deaf community must stick together. 

Because Buel never wants any woman to feel alone as she did, she founded "Pink Deafies" in 2003 as a support group for deaf women battling breast cancer. Now with 17 members, 14 of whom are very active, the group has monthly meetings providing information and support. Buel said it is a place where we "share our frustrations. It gives us hope." Upon joining, each member signs her name to a quilt square - hence "signing on." Membership is not an ordinary commitment, said Nancy Meyers, but rather "a commitment until they die," because they want to be there for everyone in the group, no matter what.

The "Pink Deafies" are featured in "Signing On" as the unscripted documentary unfolds the everyday lives of these women. In order to make the film possible, director Barbara Allen and co-producers Anita Buel and Nancy Meyer applied for a grant of $5,000 from the Susan G. Komen Foundation. Meyers said, "We didn't know what we were getting into." Part of the terms of the grant was that Buel had to make a presentation to the board. They were so impressed with her that they doubled the requested $5,000 to $10,000. That's when their idea became a reality, and their initial 15-minute informative clip transformed into an entire documentary, which took four years of hard work to complete.

Director Barbara Allen makes you step outside yourself and enter their world. "Imagine yourself going to another country and you don't speak the language. You find out you have a very serious disease and you must put yourself in the hands of people who do not speak your language; who do not know your language. Imagine what that would be like - and then imagine that's your own country."


CORRECTION 2/11/2011: Timeline for diagnosis and treatment clarified.

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Sara Chars's picture
Sara Chars

Sara Chars is pursuing Journalism, Spanish, & Art at the University of Minnesota and is currently an intern at the Daily Planet.