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June 1, 2003

Deaf student overcomes many obstacles to graduate

From: Columbia State, SC - Jun 1, 2003

Staff Writer

Jason Bailey didn't spend much time during his 12 years in Columbia-area public schools watching the teacher in the front of the classroom.

His eyes often focused on sign language interpreters like Cynthia Cross, who handled the duties the past three years. Bailey, who graduated from Dutch Fork High School Saturday, is deaf.

An "A-B" student, Bailey's grades qualified him as an honor graduate at Dutch Fork High and also earned him membership in its chapters of the national Beta Club and National Honor Society.

"It's a big thing to be a member of the National Honor Society," he said.

Bailey, 18, obviously faced a stiffer challenge than his 428 fellow seniors to reach such academic heights.

Those who know him say he didn't let being deaf become an obstacle -- even during some dark days during his senior year.

As a middle school student, he persuaded his parents, Ellen and "Biss" Bailey, to let him undergo cochlear implant surgery that would place electrodes in his inner (left) ear and link them to a miniature amplifier. The medical procedure was considered risky at the time because it was relatively new and could have destroyed what little hearing he had.

"My parents are very special," Bailey said. "They strongly believe I will make the right decision. I felt like it was worth taking a chance."

It was a big step for the family, which learned of Bailey's hearing problems when he was 2½. Bailey said he resisted using hearing aides, although he does use one in his right ear today.

The implant surgery was a success, and Bailey blossomed as a student in an era where e-mail and instant messaging can supplant the spoken word.

"It brings deaf people closer together," he said.


In January, the implant failed -- ahead of when the manufacturer's warranty said it would. He faced total deafness.

Bailey doesn't read lips and was reliant on sign language and sounds transmitted to his brain from the implant.

Those around Bailey worried the emergency would be a distraction.

"I really thought it could be a serious problem," Cross said. "But he never gave in."

Ellen Bailey, his mother, said "he did much better with it than we did."

With his senior year winding down, Bailey faced a dilemma. Soldier on without replacing the implant? Or undergo another surgery and endure the months of fine-tuning the mechanism needs.

He acknowledged being "nervous" about his situation.

"I worked hard to get the (first) implant. When it broke down, I got a little worried," he said.

"But I always look on the bright side. It will get better."

The teenager did lots of research and found a respected surgeon at the Medical University of South Carolina who could replace the implant with an upgraded model by the same manufacturer.

Ellen Bailey said her son missed less than a week of school because of the surgery and returned to class sporting a partially shaved head and stocking cap.

"I was wanting his senior year to be very special for him," Ellen Bailey said. "He did much better with it than we did."


A burly 6 feet 1 inch tall, Bailey is difficult to miss. He was chief videographer for Dutch Fork High girls' basketball team. He was a high-profile participant in community service activities and fund-raisers organized by the Beta Club.

Bailey's best subject was calculus, a skill traceable to his mom, a former math teacher. He earned spending money as a math tutor at Dutch Fork until state budget cuts wiped out the school's account.

The class he liked the best was "computers. There's very little talking. It's mostly typing."

(He's leaning toward a career in computer programming or network administration.)

Drama class presented the most difficulties. "I like to act," he said. "The problem is, I can't understand other people's lines. (Cross) can't interpret three people speaking at the same time."

Both laugh at the recollection.

Bailey's graduation is an emotional time for Cross, 34. She grew close to Bailey, whom she unabashedly calls "special."

"I'll probably cry," she said, welling up. "I get close to these kids because they try so hard."

Bailey smiles and glances away as Cross drops her hands and wipes away a tear.

Bailey's achievements in the classroom are considerable, say adults who work with the deaf.

Deaf students sometimes fall short of qualifying for a South Carolina high school diploma because they can't earn a passing score on the writing section of the mandatory exit exam. Sign language doesn't translate smoothly into written English, Ellen Bailey said.

"A lot of deaf people I know didn't get a diploma," Bailey said. There's one friend, in particular, who he said he wishes he "could do something for him. I feel incredible sorrow for him."

If there's a lesson, Bailey said he would hope young children with hearing problems could take from his experience, it is: "You've got to have faith in yourself."

"You can't give up. Keep on going. (Deafness) is no excuse."

He will follow his own advice. Bailey heads to Washington, D.C., this fall, where he'll enroll in Gallaudet University, a college that caters to the deaf and hard of hearing. Gallaudet aggressively pursued him as a student and offered $16,000 in financial aid to help defray his expenses over the next four years.

Said Bailey, "It's nice to be desired."

© 2003 The State and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.