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February 7, 2003

Deaf Central wrestler thrives on quiet success

From: Southeast Missourian, MO - 07 Feb 2003

By Jeff Breer ~ Southeast Missourian

Brandon Hinkle has attributes that will serve him well in life.

Coaches and teammates on the Central Tigers wrestling team cite a great sense of humor, easy-going nature, hard work ethic, dedication and determination.

They've already been useful in the face of a glaring absence, since one characteristic was not standard equipment for Hinkle: The ability to hear.

The Tigers senior, a tri-captain in Central's best season in more than a decade, has been deaf since infancy.

"He's completely normal," tri-captain Trever Duncan said. "A great guy. He just can't hear."

Going through life one sense short has not deterred Hinkle. Central's 145-pounder has fashioned a 21-17 record this season and talks of qualifying for the state tournament. He begins that pursuit Saturday in the district meet at House Springs.

Likewise, with a personable style that confronts his disability head-on, Hinkle is winning off the mat, too.

While his hearing is clouded and his speech lacks crisp enunciation, he still allows his personality to shine through.

He hears well enough, with the help of hearing aids, to boost his lip-reading skills.

At school he has a shadow -- an interpreter -- virtually the entire day. At practice, his gaze often is fixed upon the interpreter rather than Tigers coach Josh Crowell.

"I think he's the first deaf athlete ever at Central," Crowell said.

Hinkle is, in fact, the first severe-profound hearing loss student at Central, the school says.

While his teammates understand the seriousness of Hinkle's disability, there's also a comfort with one another and comedy of everyday life that both sides seize. His hearing disability is not treated as sacred ground, rather common ground that both sides tread about lightly at times.

"Huh?" has become somewhat of an unofficial slogan of the Tiger wrestlers. It may be seem peculiar to some outsiders, but among teammates it carries warmth and acceptance in its own quirky manner.

He's also been bestowed the Communicator of the Year Award at the Tigers' mock ceremony at the year-end banquet.

"They kid me about my hearing. I kid them about other stuff," Hinkle said. "I know they don't mean nothing by it."

He knows mean-spirited. As a main-streamed student in the Cape Girardeau school district, not even deafness could shield him from cruelty of classmates.

"I've been teased ever since I've been in school," he said.

In reality, the Most Inspirational and Most Respected are the most fitting awards given by his teammates.

"We give him a hard time about it, but he takes it in stride," sophomore Corey Huskey said. "He doesn't take anything to heart. He knows we're just kidding around."

Admiration accompanies the jokes.

"It's got to be hard," Huskey said. "Most people with a disability like that wouldn't go out for the wrestling team or any sport in general. And he goes out for one of the toughest ones without being able to hear. It takes a lot of guts."

The wrestling mat is just another venue for his determination.

Brenda and Scott Hinkle were never given a definite explanation for their eldest son's hearing loss. Doctors suspected oxygen deprivation, but antibiotics administered for an illness at a young age were not ruled out.

The cause is nebulous, but the results are definite and measurable. Brandon suffers from severe-profoundhearing loss in both ears. Without hearing aids -- not allowed in practice or competition -- both ears tune into silence.

"He can't hear anything," Brenda said. "He says sometimes he can hear a very loud noise."

With hearing aids, his hearing ability is 50 to 60 decibels. That makes for difficult conversation, which usually is about 30 decibels.

Brandon's parents examined the educational avenues for a hearing-impaired child. They looked into the Central Institute for the Deaf, a private school in St. Louis, and the Missouri State School for the Deaf in Fulton, Mo.

Public Law 94-142 opened an alternative, pioneer route for Hinkle. The law, passed in 1975, guarantees free, appropriate and public education for all children. It provided the means for assistance -- interpreters and special educational instructors -- Hinkle would need to go to a public school.

The family, which also includes younger brother Matt, faced three alternatives, two of which had little appeal. The Hinkles could either uproot and send a young child away to school or try to mainstream Brandon into the Cape Girardeau school district.

"We could not see sending a little bitty kid away to school. We wanted him to grow up with all the family and know that he was loved and wanted," Brenda said. "We could have packed up and moved, but we are close with the extended family, and we did not want to lose that. So we decided that we would have him go to the public school with an interpreter. And as he got older, if he would choose that he wanted to go away to one of the deaf schools, then we would do that."

Brandon did consider it before entering high school but decided to stay.

"We weren't sure if it would be easier for me or not, and I decided to stay here and go to Central," he said.

Brandon attended kindergarten in the Cape Girardeau school district with the help of an interpreter and half-day special instruction that included work with a speech therapist and a teacher for the hearing impaired.

"I'd say most the time he's been the only deaf student in the school district," Brenda said. "I think now they do have some younger students in the district at the grade school level. I think all in all, we've kind of blazed the trail. It wasn't always easy to get things set up. I think it was more a case of people being unfamiliar with what he needed to be successful in the classroom."

In second grade he started spending half his day with Ida Domazlicky, a teacher for the hearing impaired.

Various interpreters, provided by the school district through special funding from the state, still help him throughout the day, and as a senior he still spends about 30 minutes a week with Domazlicky .

"It's been a real privilege working with Brandon," Domazlicky said. "He's a real special kid. I'm proud of him."

She credits his parents with learning sign language and introducing Brandon to language in the key window of opportunity, which is from birth to age 7. His parents learned sign language from flash cards and later took classes at the vocational school. They worked with him extensively during his pre-school years, and the signing allowed Hinkle to understand the concepts of language, which was critical to the mainstreaming process.

He could converse through sign language by age 3 and form sentences by kindergarten.

"That made a tremendous difference," Domazlicky said. "He could not be who he is if they hadn't started that."

The sign-language base aided lip-reading, which was introduced in kindergarten.

While he is able to read lips and has limited hearing with hearing aids, he still struggles in a larger setting when a teacher is not always facing his way or when there's competing noise.

"Say the teacher is lecturing, and the next classroom out there is making noises, I would probably miss the whole thing," Brandon said. "With the interpreter there, she'll catch everything. I'm really glad to have them."

With special help and hard work, Brandon has held his own in the classroom. He's accumulated a 6.95 GPA on Central's 11-point scale, or nearly a B average. Sports have helped the mainstreaming process.

"I think he's always been very physical and athletically inclined," Brenda said.

He played baseball and soccer in youth leagues and participated in track and played football in eighth and ninth grade.

Brandon smiled as he talked about the tribulations of a deaf receiver. When he played, a good reception took on an entirely different meaning.

"I couldn't understand the quarterback and which play he was calling for," he said. "It was hard because his mouthpiece and facemask were always in the way."

Duncan was also on the team and witnessed the struggles.

"When he was out there, he couldn't hear him say 'hike,' so there he was," Duncan said. "He waited for other people to have to move first."

Wrestling proved a better fit.

"Really I have no problem because I have an interpreter in there, and the coaches get involved with me and help me understand," he said.

Although Central is in its first year of offering junior-high wrestling, Hinkle was among a group of 14 eighth-graders who practiced with the JV and occasionally got the opportunity to wrestle in matches when the opposition could provide junior-high opponents.

He and Duncan, a state qualifier as a junior, are the only two seniors who have stuck with wrestling since eighth grade.

After wrestling junior varsity as a freshman, Hinkle moved to varsity as a sophomore. He went 13-15 as a junior and set his eyes on a winning record his senior season. He's virtually assured himself of that.

"I'm doing better than I thought," Hinkle said.

He attributes coaching, along with AAU/USA wrestling after his sophomore and junior seasons, with helping him make strides.

"Watching him go on from freshman year, sophomore year, he's improved more probably than anyone else in the room," Huskey said.

Hinkle knows bouncy cheerleaders mean well, but occasionally their method of encouragement can foul up the lines of communication.

Without his hearing aids in competition -- and headgear added -- he must rely on other senses during a match. One is feel -- as in the vibration Crowell makes while banging on the mat to get Hinkle's attention. But mat-side cheerleaders also like to thump the floor.

"During a match, the coach is trying to get my attention. They're stomping and everything," Brandon said. "I can't tell because the cheerleaders are over there stomping on the mats, too. So I don't know when to look up."

Huskey said it has gotten a little amusing at times when Crowell and his squad have pounded the mat in a tense moment.

"He could be a lot better if he wasn't deaf," Huskey said. "There's times in matches where he'll be in a sit-up position and coach is trying to get his attention and tell him something. He doesn't realize coach is trying to get a message to him, and it could almost cost him a move."

But silence can have an upside in a raucous gym.

"Nobody is bothering me or nothing, and I don't have to listen to any other people yelling at me," Brandon said. "I like that."

"If he's in a real close match and it's a hostile crowd, that's not going to faze him a bit," Crowell said. "Not to say we don't want our kids to be able to hear, but sometimes that can be an advantage."

Crowell said communication problems have lessened with Hinkle's increased experience. He has a better idea of what he should be doing and knows when he needs to check with the coach. Experience has sharpened his other mat senses.

"There's a lot more senses that you use in wrestling than your hearing," Crowell said. "A lot more. Hearing is a small part of it.

"There have been very successful wrestlers who are blind, because they have such a great feel for body awareness. You lose one sense -- it's kind of like in life -- you overcompensate with your other senses. And Brandon has been able to do that."

Hinkle has been swimming in the mainstream of American life.

His presence also has affected the flow of the current.

Crowell says it's been a good experience and talks of patience he's had to acquire.

Teammates have picked up a little sign language along the way, along with a different perspective, admiration and inspiration.

"You look at him and think, 'If he can do that with a disability, what can I do if I just put my mind to it?'" Huskey said.

Brandon says he's actually more comfortable around people with hearing than those with his own disability, whom he doesn't come into much contact with. And those with hearing are the people he'll deal with on a daily basis over a lifetime.

There always will be obstacles for someone with a handicap. Wrestling has not only provided him with high school memories, but it can help him handle future hurdles.

"It's a good experience for me as well and everyone else," Brandon said. "It gets you in shape. It teaches you values, how to be responsible and to take up challenges. Pretty much the whole team is like real close to each other. We're almost like brothers. We spend so much time together."

Brenda has few regrets about the road taken by her son.

"I think for us as a family it was the best choice, and I would never think we did wrong in that way," she said. "I think sometimes socially it might have been more beneficial for him to have gone to a deaf school. But as far as him being a success, I have no doubt that he's done well."

Hinkle plans to attend Southeast Missouri State University next year and wants to major in physical education. He already volunteers with youth wrestling.

But there are more immediate goals for Central's 145-pounder. And it calls for more guts than hearing, which is right up his alley.

"I'm proud of what he's been able to accomplish so far," Crowell said. "My goal is for him to get to the state tournament and place. Quite honestly, when I look at that, I don't even look as deafness as being a handicap. You've just got to suck it up and get it done."

335-6611, extension

© 2003, Southeast Missourian.