IM this article to a friend!

April 18, 2003

Deaf student makes a name for herself

From: Kennett Paper, PA - Apr 18, 2003

By Wendy Harrell

Local girl settles into KHS in spite of hearing loss.

Sixteen-year-old Leona Dugger, a sophomore at Kennett High School, loves lacrosse. She gets good grades, loves to talk online, and is well liked by her fellow students and teachers. She's pretty much your average teenager, with one exception. She is almost entirely deaf.

When Dugger was 14 months old, she contracted a serious case of chicken pox accompanied by a three-day fever of 105 degrees. The fever burned the hair in her inner ears thus greatly limiting her ability to hear.

No one in Leona's family knows sign language. She received a hearing aid when she was three years old and immediately began learning how to speak. She had to. She wasn't allowed to mime at home. Dugger's mother, Brenda Miller, was set on her having a more real-world experience in spite of her hearing loss.

"I made her say something, then repeat what she said. Then I'd teach her how to say it right. I suppose I pushed her pretty hard, but I knew she was an exceptional child. I didn't want her to feel unlike the other kids," said Miller.

Dugger attended Starkweather Elementary and Stetson Middle School in West Chester for the Intermediate Unit's deaf education program. Before long, nearly all of her classes were made up of both hearing and deaf students.

By the time she was in high school, she realized she no longer needed the support of the program and found her way home to Kennett High. "I was jealous of my older sister, who went there. I wanted to do the things she got to do," said Dugger.

Now, well in her first year at Kennett, Dugger is successfully making it on her own in a school population that has little experience accommodating the needs of deaf students, according to Jeanne Hutton, Dugger's guidance counselor at Kennett.

To facilitate her experience at KHS, Dugger's teachers wear an FM device that complements Dugger's limited ability to hear on her own and her lip reading skills, which are excellent.

Where the FM device falls short, Amber Wenckus, Dugger's sign language interpreter and companion, fills the gap.

Wenckus accompanies Dugger to all of her classes and interprets in sign language what the teacher or other students say. Likewise, when a teacher has difficulty understanding Dugger, she relays Dugger's comments back to the teacher.

"I've known Leona for four years and have watched her grow from a shy girl to a confident role model to other students. Her attitude has always been 'Don't look at me because I'm hard of hearing; look at me because I'm Leona'," said Wenckus.

In no time at all Dugger made Kennett High her own, but she wasn't quite finished. In November she started her own after school sign language club called the "Pidgon Club," where she teaches students and teachers about the deaf community.

"I teach them basic sign language like the alphabet and common words, but it's not just about how to sign, it's about deaf people," said Dugger. "It gives them a different perspective about how people deal with their deafness."

In class they also watch videos on deaf culture and learn about medical advances in hearing loss. In May, they are planning a trip to Rutgers University to see a play acted out in English and sign language. "We have a good time," said Dugger.

"Leona has been a real addition to our school," said Hutton. It takes tremendous strength and maturity to do what she has done. She is truly a student leader."

As for lacrosse, Dugger's true love, her interpreter sits on the bench and the coaches and referees find minor ways to adapt the game such as holding the signs longer and pausing the game if Dugger fails to hear the whistle. She depends largely on her teammates to help her stay in touch with the coach and refs.

"A lot of people think deaf people can't play sports. I'm not broken," she said with a smile. "I'm not going to let my hearing loss stop me from doing anything I want to do."

©The Kennett Paper 2003