Photo by Sarah Mirk

"IMAGINE GOING HOME for Christmas and sitting around a dinner table with your family, with everybody talking and no one speaking to you."

Clinical social worker Bo O'Dell provides that image, speaking in a mellifluous voice from his therapist's chair in his Southeast Portland office. Outside, city crews have been digging up the street for weeks. The construction sounds bother most of his patients, but the vibrations from the construction are felt acutely by the 25 percent of his patients who are deaf.

One of the few local therapists fluent in American Sign Language, O'Dell says that though every patient is different, his deaf clients often struggle with issues of isolation and despair.

The recent revelation that a Catholic priest in Wisconsin allegedly molested 200 young deaf boys—a scandal involving the pope himself—highlights the unique difficulties deaf people face in seeking therapy. Speaking the unspeakable is difficult enough when it's in plain English.

O'Dell has a chilling perspective on the abuse.

"Imagine: Few people understand you when you communicate. A rape happens, a sexual assault happens, who do you tell? And how do you tell them? You might know the signs for rape, but you might not," says O'Dell. "Would you have the vocabulary to describe what had happened to you? And that on top of shame and an adult in your life telling you not to talk about it."

The US Census Bureau counts 160,899 deaf or hard of hearing people living in Oregon (4.3 percent of the population). Of those, according to health care think tank the Lund Report, 7,466 deaf Oregonians have a diagnosable mental health disorder. The Lund Report found only two licensed therapists in the state who are deaf themselves.

Experts split on whether it is more beneficial for deaf children to learn sign language or lip reading. But in either case, says O'Dell, some deaf children show up at residential schools at age three or four with no language at all. Worse, he has seen about a dozen parents in his nearly 20 years of work who know only the signs for punishment.

"Can you imagine? The only time your parents actually communicated with you was when you did something wrong? They know the sign for 'Stop it.' But they don't know the sign for 'Go ahead. Try it.'"

Though he is able to hear, O'Dell feels he is able to connect with some of the isolation his patients feel, since he grew up gay in Arkansas.

"Some of my experience matches, because deaf people by and large are born to hearing families, so the family that they're born to doesn't truly understand them," he says. "And that was my case, too, in some ways. Feeling like you don't fit in. But I think my experience was 10 times less than that of most deaf people."

O'Dell left Arkansas for Oregon after college, saying he had acquired "all the education in racism, sexism, and homophobia" that he needed in life.

Slipped between the books on one of O'Dell's shelves is a small, heavy black box. Inside is a teletypewriter, a cumbersome communication tool for the deaf that has only recently become archaic thanks to video phones and text messages.

Though technology is improving lives, O'Dell laments that America is rampant with a form of discrimination I had never considered: audism.

"The world expects people to act like a hearing person," explains O'Dell. "Think of many of the things you and I take for granted, fire alarms, doorbells, overhead announcements at the airport. Imagine you walk into the lunchroom at the Mercury and you see everyone laughing. Are they laughing at the punchline to a joke? Or are they laughing at you?"