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April 11, 2003

Austine School students, parents compare deaf vs. hearing culture

From: Brattleboro Reformer, VT - Apr 11, 2003

Reformer Staff
BRATTLEBORO -- Students, teachers and parents at the Austine School are contemplating what it feels like to move between the deaf and hearing worlds -- and to what extent the presence of deaf role models matters in deaf students' lives -- in the wake of the deaf community's no-confidence vote to the board of the Vermont Center for the Deaf & Hard of Hearing last month.

Representatives for the deaf community in Brattleboro delivered the vote on March 21 to the board of the VCDHH, an umbrella organization that has served as the governing agency of the Austine School for the deaf since 1997. They contended they had been left out of the search process for a new president and requested that the board be composed of a deaf majority.

Board chairman Daniel Allen said a new deaf member on the board brought the number of deaf members to five, compared with eight hearing members.

"We are taking the concern very seriously," he said. "I have always been an advocate of more deaf representation on the board."

Allen said a deaf board member now served as the nominating committee chairman.

On Wednesday, Sha-Quanna Burgess, a senior at Austine with a hearing family, described her movement among several cultures -- African-American, deaf and hearing -- as initially confusing but ultimately positive, as she engaged in different behavior and speech styles.

"It's true that the rules are different," she said. "But you need to get used to the different rules that apply in different situations."

Burgess, who said her mother uses sign language, described the deaf language as more visceral, and more inclusive of the entire body.

"In deaf culture there's got to be a visual language. It's very visual, very physical," she said, adding that the auditory language of hearing culture did not involve as much eye contact.

M.J. Bouchard, who graduated from Austine in 1968, and whose daughter attends the school, said the transition from a hearing household to a deaf environment could be a rough one. Bouchard, though deaf, has hearing parents, and she said when she and her daughter visited those parents the rules changed quickly.

"It is hard, especially on my daughter," she said. "I would call our household a deaf household because everything is there: signs for the doorbell, the fire alarm, (the alarm clock), the oven timer. We have all of that. For us it's pretty easy -- we can make as much noise as we want.

"But when we go over to my parents' house, it's thought that I'm noisy and my daughter's noisy. My parents are always saying, 'Shh, shh,' and that's hard for us."

But Bouchard said her daughter was resilient -- possibly more so than an adult would be.

"As a teenager she's very free-spirited," she said.

Other students also remarked not on the stress they felt in moving between worlds, but of the challenge of learning different codes.

Jennifer Harbart, a sophomore from a hearing family, downplayed the differences between the two environments.

"Well, I think some parents can be overprotective and they don't let their children participate completely," she said, citing certain cultural differences that included, in deaf culture, banging on the table to be heard, rather than yelling out.

"When I was little it was a bit confusing," she continued, "but now it goes along very easily."

Alana Gadreault, the school's nurse and the parent of a fourth-grader at Austine School, questioned the term "culture" as the best way to describe the environment either inside or outside of the school.

"I don't really look at it as culture," she said. "I look at it as my son having a specific deficit that he has to deal with."

Gadreault, who is hearing, said she was pleased with the quality of education at the school and had no preference about whether the teachers were hearing or deaf.

"This is a school," she added later. "It's not its own city, its own planet. Its job is to educate."

Ann Wholey, a Brattleboro resident whose son is in the seventh grade at Austine and at the Brattleboro Area Middle School, praised the environment at Austine and said relations among parents, staff and students were largely positive.

"The best place to experience deaf culture ... is in the atmosphere at Austine," said Wholey, a hearing parent. She also said her son, who has a cochlea implant, felt comfortable among hearing and deaf people.

"I don't see my son as struggling between the two," she said.

Burgess, Harbart and Jaclyn Feder-Piasek -- all students at Austine -- did not stress deafness as a necessary quality of a good teacher of deaf students. But they did say a familiarity with deaf culture was crucial for teachers to be effective -- a familiarity that went beyond the ability to sign fluently.

"The thing that's most important is that they're able to incorporate the two cultures, and not have resistance to one or the other," said Burgess.

"I think it doesn't matter if they are hearing or deaf, but it's important how they conduct themselves around the deaf world," added Harbart.

Feder-Piasek, a junior whose parents are deaf, also emphasized the importance of teachers' attitudes and highlighted the need for deaf role models.

"If I have a problem or something -- especially in thinking about my future -- it's really important (to have a deaf role model)," she said. "I would feel better about myself then."

© 2003 Brattleboro Reformer