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November 4, 2002

Teacher Learned To Value Culture Of Deaf

From: Hartford Courant, CT
Nov. 4, 2002

By ROGER CALIP, Special To The Courant

When Migdalia Colón was 14, she started baby-sitting for a 4-year-old deaf boy named Kyle and his 5-year-old hearing sister, Mallory.

At the time, Colón had no idea that the little boy under her care would one day play a major role in her career choice.

Today, Kyle is 17 and a student at the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford, and Colón is in her fifth year of employment at the school as a speech language pathologist.

Colón's and Kyle's families lived on the same street in Stratford, where Colón's father, a native of the Dominican Republic, owns and runs a Spanish-language radio station. For seven years, Colón baby-sat for Kyle and his sister.

"I had never met a deaf person before," Colón said, "and I was eager to learn how to communicate with Kyle."

So Colón started learning signs from books, as well as from Kyle and his sister.

"I quickly became fascinated with both sign language and the culture of the deaf," she said, noting how Kyle's progress in language development matched her own growing proficiency in sign language.

When Kyle started going to the American School for the Deaf, Colón would attend functions there, such as award ceremonies and Kyle's soccer and basketball games. This continued association with Kyle and deaf culture became the catalyst for Colón's career choice.

"I realized that this [profession] was where I wanted to be," she said.

In college, Colón's interest in deaf culture was further enhanced when she chose a double major at the University of Connecticut: communication disorders and cultural anthropology.

Exposure to the latter discipline made Colón see and appreciate deaf culture not as a deviation from the "normal" culture of hearing people, but as a culture of its own thriving within the dominant culture.

Throughout her college career, Colón struggled with her choice of profession because it seemed at odds with deaf culture.

"Speech pathologists were often viewed as hearing people who wanted to turn the deaf into hearing people, with little regard to their rich language or cultural values," she said.

Colón found the solution at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the world's only university for the deaf, and known as the Mecca of deaf culture.

"I wanted to work with deaf people, not change them into hearing people or view them as disabled," she said. "It was difficult to find a graduate program in speech pathology that appreciated deafness as a culture, and not just a disability that needed to be fixed."

Colón said that when she enrolled as a master's student at Gallaudet, "I knew that this was the place I was looking for. Here I would learn the skills I needed to become a speech pathologist within the deaf culture, and not against it."

Skills that Colón now puts to daily use as a teacher of 21 students in grades 1, 3 and 6 include lip reading - or more precisely, speech reading.

"We call it speech reading because it's not just the lip movement that you're reading, but it's the facial expression and all the body language involved," she said.

Often, especially with the very youngest group of first-graders, Colón uses stage props, such as a puppet named Jack, to show her young audience how to coordinate hand signs and facial expressions with the rest of the body language and put whatever is being said into its proper context.

School starts at 8:30 a.m. and ends at 3:30 p.m. Colón sees her students individually, or in groups of two or three.

"We work on their speech and language goals through instruction, practice and play therapy," she said. "Using play therapy to elicit speech and language keeps the students motivated and makes it more fun for them."

When she's not in class, Colón catches up on paperwork and meets with other teachers or parents. She has an hour for lunch and a 45-minute preparation each day.

Colón emphasizes the importance of her two-year graduate study at Gallaudet, describing the period as "the most exciting and enlightening years of my life."

She became immersed in deaf culture. It was there that Colón became fluent in American Sign Language; it was there, she said, that she "became a true member of the deaf culture, instead of an outsider looking in."

Colón got a master's degree in May 1998, and was hired at the American School for the Deaf four months later.

Her job search seemed to have an it-was-meant-to-be quality. It was Kyle, then 13, who started the ball rolling.

Colón had learned a semester before she finished at Gallaudet that there was no opening at the American School for the Deaf. So she started looking elsewhere for her first job.

But one day while she was at Kyle's house, at work on resumes at the family computer, he told her to look up the school's website. She told him she already knew that the school wasn't hiring.

But Kyle insisted that she visit the website. Colón did so just to appease him. They found a hit the first time; there was an opening for a speech teacher.

"All these years," Colón said, "Kyle had been telling his teachers that his friend Mickie was going to work at ASD one day." is Copyright © 2002 by The Hartford Courant