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March 27, 2004

Sign of Life: Westminster grad unites hearing, deaf worlds

From: New Castle News - New Castle,PA,USA - Mar 27, 2004

By: Josiah Lockley, New Castle News

In his 23 years, Joseph W. Gill II has lived in a world with hearing and one without. Now, he wants to bring those two worlds together.

After spending four years as a student at Westminster College, where he graduated in 2003, Gill now teaches sign language as part of Westminster's Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning classes.

Gill instructs a handful of mostly adult students, covering the basics of sign language such as memorizing the alphabet, numbers and simple words.

In a class last week, Gill signed family words such as mother, father, brother and sister. Class members silently sign the word back in unison.

Gill is able to hear now with the help of a cochlear implant, an electrical device that's surgically implanted to stimulate hearing nerves. He has regained 70 percent of his hearing.

Gill doesn't teach the classes to people who have hearing problems; just the opposite.

For Jennifer Toomey and her son Connor, their reason for attending hits close to home. Toomey's other son, is autistic. "We just want to teach him some simple, no-verbal signs to help him communicate with us better," the elder Toomey said.

"I want to unite the hearing and deaf worlds," said Gill, hoping that someday "deaf people will not have to go through the aggravation and frustration that I went through, trying to fit in and communicate while I was growing up."

And he went through a lot.

As a child, Gill was plagued with numerous health problems, which included multiple bouts of meningitis. At age 5, his second bout of meningitis was so severe that he slipped into a coma.

As a complication of the coma, his seventh cranial nerve was damaged, resulting in the loss of his hearing.

Two years later, he began learning sign language, but because teachers and family focused on his ability to read lips and because he wasn't deaf at birth, Gill was able to get along through reading lips, his father said.

He received his cochlear implant at the age of 10. With the implant's help, he stopped using sign language as he entered junior high. "He wanted to fit in," his father said, "and you know how kids can be at that time."

He began signing again two years ago at the urging of a friend who is deaf.

Gill realized how tough it was for those who are deaf to communicate with people who don't understand sign language.

In the fall, he volunteered to teach his class to a group of 15 Westminster students, who receive no credit. He was then contacted by the Continuing Education Department about teaching the night classes.

Yvonne Clark said the class helps her at work. A family service worker for the Headstart program in Lawrence County, Clark says she runs into families with members who are hearing impaired.

Chris Dwyer, a counselor at a church camp, met a camper who was deaf.

"The girl didn't have anyone to talk to all week," he said. "I just want to be able to sign something back to them and be able to be someone they can talk to."

©New Castle News 2004