FALMOUTH – Becoming a part of Maine’s deaf community helped Mike Keane define himself.

The 16-year-old grew up hard of hearing. When he turned 13, his hearing started to worsen.

“My identity was breaking up because I was hard of hearing,” Keane signed through an interpreter. “I didn’t know who I was or where I belonged.”

Now a student at Portland High School, Keane says learning American Sign Language from Regan Thibodeau has helped him become a member of the deaf community.

That community was celebrated Saturday during the Deaf Culture Festival at the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf on Mackworth Island. Nearly 500 people turned out for the festival, which featured a variety of activities.

Elissa Moran, executive director of the Maine Center on Deafness, said there are about 3,000 culturally deaf signers — culturally deaf means they were born into the deaf community and their first language was signing — in Maine and more than 130,000 people who are hard of hearing or who have lost their hearing late in life.

The festival, which has been held annually for more than 20 years, concludes Deaf Culture Awareness Week in Maine. This year it also marks 135 years of deaf education in Maine.

The Maine Center on Deafness, which helps those who are deaf or hard of hearing, or have experienced hearing loss, is one of the main sponsors of the festival.

At the center’s booth, Moran signed to a man to inform him about a flashing signal system for the home that could alert him if someone is at the door or his phone is ringing.

“Technology has been a tremendous boon to the deaf community,” Moran said, from signaling systems to videophones, which help deaf people communicate.

More than 40 vendors set up at the festival, some with equipment to aid the hearing-impaired community. Mercy Hospital was also on hand giving flu shots and health screenings.

Saturday also marked the grand reopening of the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf Museum.

Bill Nye, a former teacher at the school, started collecting memorabilia and artifacts for the museum nearly two decades ago. It opened in 1995 as Maine’s first museum dedicated to the deaf community.

Nye hopes the museum will stay in this larger space and continue to represent the history of deaf culture in Maine.

In the museum, standing near one of the first teletype units, the size of a mini-refrigerator, Nye said technology has evolved so much in the past 50 years that deaf people can now communicate through videophones that fit in a pocket.

“I’m so thrilled to see the level of interest and what the museum means to them,” Nye signed as people milled around him. “The history of the deaf community, talking about how deaf people lived so long ago and the barriers they had, and now those barriers are falling away.”

It was the first time Keane attended the festival. He felt the event was a great opportunity to learn about the deaf community, but also to network with other deaf people.

“I’m really enjoying myself,” Keane signed. “I love the socialization.”

Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

ebouthillette@pressherald.com