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May 1, 2004

Deaf children compete in 'fingerspelling' bee

From: Dekalb Daily Chronicle, IL - May 1, 2004

By Ginny Skalski - Associated Press Writer

SPRINGFIELD - Twelve-year-old LaDale Williamson won a spelling bee Friday by getting "buffalo" right. No big deal for a lot of children, but this was no typical spelling bee.

LaDale and the other competitors are deaf, and the contest was a statewide "fingerspelling" bee that involved spelling out words in sign language.

It takes a little more work for deaf and hard of hearing students to participate in a spelling bee, said LaDale's interpreter, Judy Williams. They must memorize the signs for each word - a wavy, up-and-down motion for "dolphin," for example, or a slashing gesture that means "diagonal" - a tricky task in a language where one sign can mean several things.

A presenter begins by signing a word for the contestant. Then the child uses his or her fingers to spell out the word letter by letter.

Participants can't rely on a word's pronunciation for help because most of them have never heard the words aloud. Instead of sounding a word out, contestants sometimes spell it behind their backs, where the judges can't see, until satisfied that they've got the right spelling.

"For a deaf kid, there really isn't any easy or hard word," Williams said.

LaDale, a fifth-grade student at the Illinois School for the Deaf in Jacksonville, gave up his recess every day for two weeks to study a list of about 300 words.

"I thought I could win," LaDale signed to his interpreter.

About 25 students participated in the seventh annual bee, an event organizers say gives deaf students a chance to improve their spelling while participating in a grade school tradition.

"It's giving children who would normally not be able to participate the same experience as children without a hearing loss," said John Miller, director of the Illinois Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission.

There is no national fingerspelling competition, which is something Miller would like to see changed.

Lisa Rivera said she never thought her deaf 13-year-old son would have the same opportunities as children who can hear. But Friday she was proud to watch Robert compete.

"This is too intense for me and I'm not even up there," said Rivera, who drove from Chicago. She said she sat near the back of the 75 or so audience members so her son wouldn't see her and get nervous.

For hearing members of the audience, an interpreter announced the words and each letter as the children spelled them out. Otherwise, the auditorium was nearly silent. People applauded by throwing their hands in the air and wiggling their fingers.

Monitors watched the audience to make sure no one signed the words to the children while they were on stage.

Even judging this kind of spelling bee can be difficult.

Eighth-grader Nate Huddleston thought he had won in the 13-and-older age range after spelling "jewelry." The judges didn't realize he had transposed two letters until after they announced he was the winner.

The last two contestants had to go back on stage for another face-off.

Nate, a student at the Jacksonville school, won again.

"I just felt like it was another challenge, and I had to prove myself and win again," the 14-year-old later signed to an interpreter.

As he held his first-place trophy, Nate signed advice to future spellers: "If you're in a spelling bee, just keep cool."

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