With Sign Language and Love, Susan Freundlich Gives the Beat to America's Hearing-Impaired

updated 01/24/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/24/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

When Susan Freundlich appears onstage at the side of Emmylou Harris or Pete Seeger, weaving back and forth in her own spotlight, the singers' audiences grow by anywhere from 70 to 170 people. The numbers are not impressive, but Freundlich's fans, who often sit in a roped-off area of their own, are different. Accompanying dozens of performers over the last five years, Freundlich, 31, has used a combination of dance, mime and American Sign Language to open up the concert experience to the country's nearly 20 million hearing-impaired.

The daughter of a Houston surgeon, Freundlich says she studied audiology at the University of Denver in the early 1970s because "I thought I wanted to teach deaf kids how to talk." She thought again as she became aware of how easily the deaf converse in ASL, a sign language that has its own grammar and syntax. Encouraged by deaf friends, Freundlich decided to learn sign language herself and work as a counselor to the deaf in Cambridge, Mass.

There a new surprise awaited her. Large parts of the Cambridge deaf community had turned separatist, shunning contact with anyone who did not use sign language. Then one day in 1975, Freundlich recalls, she invited deaf friends into her room, sat them down, and played one of her favorite albums while she signed the lyrics. Their reaction was immediate. "It was like a light had gone on," she explains. Thrilled, she got on the phone with the organizers of an upcoming event at Harvard and turned it into what was probably America's first signed music festival.

It takes days for a musical interpreter to translate a song into sign language, incorporate dance and mime, and bring the whole up to performance level. But after more than 500 shows in five years—she generally gets a flat fee for each concert from the producer—Freundlich's mix has become so fluid that she receives ovations from hearing audiences and co-performers as well as deaf fans. Says Emmylou: "Even if you're standing in front of Susan and can't see her, you can still feel her presence. It's a wonderful experience for everyone."

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