Musician Yvette Landry of Breaux Bridge has become the darling of the south Louisiana music scene. Her work as bassist for the Grammy-nominated Bonsoir Catin, Lafayette Rhythm Devils, and leader of her own Yvette Landry Band has established her reputation as a go-to player for touring and sit-in sessions.
She does have a different life away from the footlights, however. To her students, she’s Miss Landry. Among the deaf and hearing-impaired of Acadiana, she’s a volunteer sign language interpreter at the Lafayette-based Deaf Action Center Sunday church services. At times, she’s the peacemaker called by Lafayette Police when hearing-impaired people are involved. Finally, she’s a teacher/mentor for beginning sign interpreters across Acadiana.
It’s ironic though that a culture which enjoys music as much as south Louisiana’s Cajuns are disproportionately affected by Usher Syndromes, a disease that renders victims deaf and blind.
“Acadiana has the largest community of not just deaf, but deaf and blind people,” Landry said. “We have the highest rate of Usher Syndromes in the nation.”
Usher Syndromes (USH) is a group of genetic diseases characterized by hearing loss and a degenerative retinal condition called retinitis pigmentosa. The severity and age at the onset of symptoms determines the disease classification as type 1, 2 or 3. Cajuns suffer mostly from Type 1, which strikes infants with deafness, often before they are able to walk. Blindness comes later when sufferers are in their 20s or younger.
Why Cajuns? History and geography—only 60 French families settled in Canada’s Maritime Provinces in the 15th century and they survived for nearly three generations in relative isolation.
Genetically, humans have 35,000 genes, of which a dozen can be defective. Therefore, there is a higher possibility of people coupling in the Acadian culture who carry the same defective gene. Researchers believe the genetic anomaly was created accidentally 15 generations before le Grand Derangement of 1755. The Acadian mutation (the 216G<A mutation) is found in no other population.
Landry did not learn sign interpretation specifically to help USH sufferers. It was about disciplining a hearing-impaired fifth grader.
Landry had learned a few signs while working with special needs students who could not read phonetically. “I used signing in conjunction with a sight word approach,” Landry said. “I learned about 200 words, but that’s like learning 200 words in French. It doesn’t really mean you can communicate.”
On her first day at a new school she observed two boys signing in conversation.
“I got excited because I knew how to sign ‘Good morning,’” she said. “I wanted to be the nice teacher who talked to the hearing-impaired children. I said, ‘Good morning,’ and they started talking to me—fast!”
But signing “Good morning” is the same as saying “comment ça va” to a bilingual Cajun, Landry said.
“When that Cajun answers with a flurry of French and keeps going, you’re stuck,” she said.
“The boy started talking to me and I was signing, ‘Stop,’” Landry said. “He got upset and hauled off for his interpreter. He came back and basically chewed my butt off.
“He was saying through the interpreter, ‘Who do you think you are? Are you pretending to talk to me? If you want to talk to me, why don’t you learn how to talk to me?’”
Landry was horrified—put down by a nine-year-old.
“I felt bad all day long, but I thought about it and remembered I was just telling that kid ‘Good morning’ just like I was telling every other kid ‘Good morning’ and nobody chewed me out. How dare he!”
Day two at school was decidedly different.
“I was huffing and puffing and told the interpreter, ‘Get that kid,’” Landry said. “He was all Mr. Attitude, all four foot of him—arms crossed—total attitude. I told the interpreter to tell him everything I said word for word.”
Which amounted to a “Where do you get off, Buster?” speech.
“I told you ‘Good morning’ just like I told 50 other students ‘Good morning,’” Landry said. “But let me tell you something—I will learn how to talk to you and when I do, I am going to chew you out just like you did to me.”
Put up or shut up time followed.
“I went straight to the office and called the Deaf Action Center,” Landry said. “Sign me up, because you have until May 15 to teach me how to chew out a fifth grader.”
Later, Landry learned the boy suffered from USH.
The irony abounds for Landry. She’s fluent in English and signing, but French doesn’t come naturally to her. And hearing loss is an occupational hazard for musicians.
“Many musicians lose their hearing, and it’s as if I was preparing by learning sign language before I became a musician,” she said. (Landry uses precautionary earplugs when she’s onstage and her hearing is fine thus far).
When Landry appears at Jazz Festival, sign interpreters will be on the stage to express the music physically for the deaf.
“Signing is an expressive and beautiful language,” Landry said. “It’s a lot like music. One of my favorite things to do is interpret/sing songs. And I love that it’s a way that I can tie both signing and music together.”