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November 25, 2002

Students thankful for mainstreaming

From: Portsmouth Herald, NH - 25 Nov 2002

By Sara Newbury

PORTSMOUTH - Kevin Prior and Amy Weeks said they are like brother and sister.

Sitting at a table in one of their classrooms, they pushed each other a little and laughed a lot. They talked using the concise movement of their hands.

Weeks and Prior have been part of the same family for 14 years, since preschool, when both of them enrolled in Portsmouth’s program for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Preparing to graduate in the spring, Weeks, Prior and their classmate Jody Drye are all seniors at Portsmouth High School, and they are all deaf. They said they’ve been a tight-knit group since they met, but they have also felt comfortable in their mainstream, hearing environment.

"Getting along with hearing students, I’m not as good as him," Weeks said pointing to Drye. "But my whole family is hearing and I can fit in the hearing world and in the deaf world. You can’t define me in one world - I am bilingual and bicultural."

"That goes for all of us," said Prior, who travels to Portsmouth from Rochester.

Coming from hearing families, the three seniors said they are used to being in the minority, and they see their deafness as a cultural difference.

"Some deaf kids will call themselves hearing-impaired, and others will say deaf because hearing-impaired sounds like a disability," said Weeks, speaking clearly even though her teachers say she can’t hear herself when she talks.

"It’s not a disability," said Weeks. "We can do anything - we just can’t hear."

They can each hear a little, said Donna Schefer, a teacher for the deaf at PHS, and they’re all very good at reading lips - unless the person they are talking to has a goatee. They laughed, but said seriously that goatees make reading lips difficult.

Weeks said she prefers the word "deaf" to be spelled with a capita* D" to show that it’s a cultural category.

Weeks, of Farmington, and who is CPR-certified and active in the high school vocational day-care program, said she wouldn’t mind going to a school for the deaf because she feels comfortable around other deaf people. But she said it probably wouldn’t be as challenging as the Portsmouth mainstream program.

Drye, of Kittery, Maine, and a member of the football and track teams at PHS, said he would never want to go to an all-deaf school.

"I like to be around a variety of people," he said. "I like to have a whole lot of different friends."

All three seniors said they like the challenge and the variety the Portsmouth program presents. And they like the support.

"This is the only program I’ve been to for the hearing-impaired," Drye said. He joined the Portsmouth program as a sophomore.

"I had to work with all hearing kids before and try to find my way. Since I’ve been here, I’ve accomplished more because I have more help."

The seniors said they weren’t happy to hear that the elementary program might be at risk.

"If your first experience (in the program) is in high school, you might be less advanced than the other kids," Weeks said. "They shouldn’t take out the program, but make it bigger."

Said Schefer, "Because kids are spread out in the state, when they go home they are the only one in town. The opportunity for interaction with deaf peers is difficult."

"I just sign my hands off whenever I have the chance," Weeks said.

Weeks, Prior and Drye are all in the process of applying to college.

"The interpreters have really helped me prepare for college," said Prior, an avid fisherman, who signed as he spoke - for his peers and for his interpreter. "They’ve helped me apply and they’ve helped me write essays."

Prior - holding what his teachers and interpreters call the "Cadillac of Palm Pilots" - pointed out how technology has changed things for the deaf and hard of hearing.

The WyndTell and Blackberry communication systems that Prior and Weeks use to stay in touch with each other and with other friends have Internet connection, instant-messaging capability and basic e-mail, among other features.

Each of the seniors has approached the Portsmouth program for the deaf and hard of hearing differently, Schefer said. Drye prefers to watch his teachers during class, and his interpreter helps by taking notes. Weeks likes to take her own notes, and Prior keeps his eye on his interpreter throughout his classes.

They said their experience in the program has been unique for each of them - but they have become close to everyone involved.

"It’s a small, tight community," said Weeks. "It’s very cool. It doesn’t matter what race you are and even hearing people are involved in the deaf community. I love it."

Weeks became deaf as a result of spinal meningitis when she was 11 months old.

"If I had to pick between going back to being hearing, I wouldn’t. I’d stay deaf," she said.

Weeks said she has made many friends through sign language. Hearing students have approached her wanting to learn how to sign.

"We used to have American sign language classes," she said. "But, unfortunately, we had to shut down that program because there wasn’t enough money to fund it - which is sad because a lot people took it because they were curious."

Weeks, Prior and Drye have time set aside during school to catch up with Schefer and each other. But most of the time they are going different directions for classes and spending time with other friends.

Over the years, the high school deaf program has included field trips to events and to other schools where students were able to spend time with other deaf teen-agers.

At one gathering, Drye said he had no idea there were so many deaf people his age. Schefer said the program is designed to create those ties.

"We act as liaisons with other districts, making sure students have interaction," she said.

Schefer said the program staff will have a hard time letting these students go when they graduate.

"We’re going to cry when they leave," she said.

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