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November 8, 2003

Standing in the gap: Livingston's deaf interpreters help students link worlds

From: The Bozeman Daily Chronicle, MT - Nov 8, 2003

By DEON LACKEY, Chronicle Staff Writer

LIVINGSTON -- Everyone knows what it's like to feel alone in a crowd.

Not everyone knows what it's like to feel that kind of isolation all the time.

Being deaf in a classroom means missing little things other kids don't even notice -- the background chatter of classmates, comments the teacher makes as she walks around the room.

Even something like following along as the teacher reads aloud becomes difficult when a deaf student has to focus on an interpreter's hands and face instead of the book.

"They miss all that incidental stuff that goes on," said Julie Traver, a sign-language interpreter for the Livingston School District. "Their world is sometimes really limited."

More than 500 Montanans are deaf, but a "deaf community," a place where it is possible to be surrounded by other deaf people, in Montana is almost nonexistent, said Jill Ellingson, the district's other deaf interpreter.

For deaf children in the Livingston schools, Traver and Ellingson are their connection to the speaking world. The women both work full time with the district's two deaf children and use American Sign Language, or ASL, to communicate lessons.

But the interpreters' work actually goes beyond decoding what's being said. They follow their students from class to class, from year to year, accompany them on field trips and work with them during study halls.

"The interpreter's role is really just to be the interpreter, and that's it, but it's really hard for me to do that," Ellingson said. "You can't help but forge a bond."

ASL is a true language, separate and unrelated to spoken English, and one that comes easily, with practice, to deaf people.

"Even hearing babies as young as 6 months old can learn sign and really express themselves (before) they can verbally," Ellingson said.

Traver learned the language for personal reasons. Her son's deafness began when he contracted meningitis at 9 months old. She learned ASL to communicate with him, but was reluctant to become an interpreter.

"I thought it was too close to home," Traver said. "Instead ... it took the sadness out of me. They talk a different language than we do, (but) we're all the same."

For Ellingson, sign language was one of those things that always intrigued her and, when she took an ASL class five years ago, it struck a chord.

"I just loved it," Ellingson recalled, "I wanted to learn and learn and learn. I never knew what I wanted to be when I 'grew up,' but I could see myself doing this."

One of the things the interpreters have learned is that the nature of deafness changes the way people communicate, and that in turn creates its own culture.

An Internet search for "deafness" brings up links to pages on deaf poetry jams, deaf singles sites and a deaf university.

"They're really proud of their culture," Ellingson said, "and proud to be deaf."

The deaf students in Livingston open up another world for their teachers and classmates, too. Traver and Ellingson are leading a signing class on Monday nights for teachers -- something the teachers requested.

And students frequently run up to the interpreters in the halls to ask how to sign a word or sentence "so the next time they see (a deaf student), they can say what they want to say," Ellingson said.

"It's unnatural to have an interpreter follow you around for every conversation or every private thought you want to tell someone," she said.

©2003 the Bozeman Daily Chronicle