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January 19, 2004

Sign language opens world to the deaf

From: Biloxi Sun Herald, MS - Jan 19, 2004


GAUTIER - Jeanita Stephens, left, and Marvelle Hanna talk using sign language as they wait for customers at Marvelle's On the Go Coffee stand at the University of Southern Mississippi Jackson County teaching site in Gautier.

Jeanita Stephens uses sign language to give Marvelle Hanna instructions as they work together at Marvelle's On the Go Coffee stand.

Last summer, Jeanita Stephens and Marvelle Hannah opened a small coffee business to provide him with a job and to get him out into the community.

The business also helps Stephens hone her skills as an interpreter and sign language teacher, something she has done for about 20 years but still works to improve. She believes people who learn sign language can open up the world to others like Hannah, who has been deaf since childhood.

Marvelle's On the Go Coffee has become a welcoming place for college students and faculty at the University of Southern Mississippi branch on the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College campus here. The stand serves hot and iced coffee, hot chocolate, hot cider and a variety of teas. Cookies are new this semester.

"It hasn't been a real great business, money-wise," Stephens said. "But it has been good to us because he's made a lot of friends.

"People will come by and say, 'Hi.' Almost every student that comes in that building waves to us. The amazing thing is that we have discovered that there are so many people who have had deaf people in their families."

Hannah said he came up with the idea for the coffee shop. He signs animatedly while deeply involved in a conversation, making loud noises and expressive hand and body movements.

He added his first employee this semester, Twaii Hamilton, who is autistic.

"She's learning pretty rapidly what to do, and I'm really happy with her," Stephens said.

Stephens believes God has given her a gift and a mission to teach sign language so that hearing people can help the deaf communicate and function better in society. She said deafness closes people off from humanity and locks them in a silent world of their own.

"But if you can contact one deaf person and make them feel like they are part of the community, then you've done something," she said.

Stephens believes sign language should be more a part of society. The deaf are ignored because their disability is not obvious and it makes people uncomfortable, she said. "When you can't use sign language, you have a tendency to walk away from deaf because you can't communicate with it," she said.

The National Center for Health Statistics places the number of profoundly deaf in the United States at more than 400,000, while people classified as hard-of-hearing number over 20 million, or about 8 percent of the total population. Within the actual ranks of deaf people, more than half reportedly use American Sign Language (ASL) on a regular basis.

Stephens learned sign language while teaching high school in Alamogorda, N.M. After she and her husband, Al, moved to Pascagoula, she was an interpreter for her church, which is now Grace Independent Baptist in Ocean Springs.

Until this year, she taught ASL at the Gautier Public Library. She has moved the classes to the coffee stand during evening hours. She also teaches the staff at Millcreek Center, where she works as Hannah's interpreter. Millcreek helps handicapped residents learn skills that integrate them into the community.

Director Mary Gilly said the center's staff and clients are learning to sign.

"Some of the individuals we serve are interested in it," she said. "Even though it's a slow process for them to learn this, as long as they are interested in trying we will keep the classes. Besides that, it makes Marvelle feel good that we're interested enough to try."

Stephens and Gilly said that sign language at the center and the coffee shop have changed Hannah's personality and attitude about life and people. He is livelier and looks forward to coming to work.

If you want to learn

What: American Sign Language classes.

When: 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. and 6 to 7 p.m. Monday and Wednesday, or Tuesday and Thursday, beginning Feb. 2. Beginners and intermediate classes will be decided after registration. Special needs will be considered.

Where: University of Southern Mississippi branch building, the Jackson County Campus of MGCCC, Ladnier Road in Gautier.

Details: Deaf adults and children are welcome to attend.

Contact: Jeanita Stephens at 497-7448.

© 2004 The Sun Herald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.