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March 10, 2003

Interpreter Provides Access To Education

From: Morning News, AR - 10 Mar 2003

Deaf Child 'Hears' Teacher Through Sign Language

By Rose Ann Pearce


FAYETTEVILLE -- Sharon Rexford has a one-of-a-kind job in the Fayetteville School District.

Although not a certified classroom teacher, Rexford spends her days in a third-grade classroom at Asbell Elementary School working her hands so that a young boy may "hear" his teacher's words.

Rexford is the only deaf interpreter in the school district.

"My basic job is to provide access through interpretation and sign language, much like providing an interpreter for a Hispanic person who doesn't speak English," Rexford said.

A typical work day is spent in the classroom with the deaf boy, but Rexford also has time during the day to tutor hard-of-hearing students.

The difference between deaf and hard of hearing is that a child who uses an interpreter is considered deaf, explained Rexford, who has worked for the school district for 11 years.

Her work as a deaf interpreter seems a logical progression for Rexford, who learned sign language from a University of Arkansas tutor so she could communicate with her daughter. Rexford also has attended a deaf-education training summer program at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock.

Charlene Rexford lost her hearing nearly 30 years ago after suffering spinal meningitis shortly after her first birthday. The youngster attended Arkansas School for the Deaf in Little Rock for 2 1/2 years before returning to Northwest Arkansas when a deaf-education program was initiated in the Springdale School District.

After graduating from Springdale High School, Charlene attended the University of Arkansas, using an interpreter, and Sharon went to work for the Fayetteville district.

In her role as a classroom interpreter, Rexford said she is a "communications facilitator for the student, for the teacher and for the other children in the classroom."

Many of the third-graders in the boy's class have never been around a deaf person, she said. The pupils ask her questions about sign language and the experience of being deaf, she added.

"I'm their model for language," she said. "They may not know other deaf kids."

One of the bigger classroom challenges is that pupils who can hear often are faster to answer questions posed by the teacher because "hearing students don't have to wait for an interpretation."

As an interpreter, she has worked with students in elementary and secondary schools, although, she adds, deaf students should have more than one interpreter as they move through the grades, to give them the experience of communicating with different people.

"That's life," she said.

Her work is both rewarding and frustrating, she said.

"I like the day-to-day challenge. It's always different," she said. The growth of the pupils she works with is most rewarding, she said.

"The teachers are so great to work with," she said. "I've never met a teacher who doesn't want the best for her students."

Although Rexford said she has seen improvement, such as closed-caption television sets and text messaging, there is still a level of frustration that comes from a lack of understanding.

"People don't understand what it's like to be deaf. Cultural and social issues come up," she said. "New things always come up, and there are no textbook answers when dealing with people. They are all different."

© 2003 The Stephens Media Group.