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November 5, 2004

She clicks with deaf children

From: Arizona Republic, AZ - Nov 5, 2004

Michelle Woo
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 5, 2004 12:00 AM

With her very first camera, a Fisher-Price point-'n'-shoot, Melissa O'Neal found her passion.

Just for fun, O'Neal would line up her Cabbage Patch dolls in her back yard and take rolls of silly photos for her mom to develop.

Now 24, the Gilbert native holds on to that that same sense of childhood wonder.

Seeing photography as a way of therapy, O'Neal works with deaf children, showing them how to use the medium as a tool of expression.

This year, she received a Fulbright scholarship to take her vision to Ireland.

O'Neal, a Gilbert High School alumna, found a way to fuse her two fascinations, photography and deaf culture, through her senior capstone project at the University of Arizona.

She took on a three month endeavor at the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind in Tucson, capturing moments on the playground and giving children simple assignments like, "Take a picture of anything you think makes sound." The finished product was purchased by UA's Center for Creative Photography.

"With photography, there are no language barriers," O'Neal said. "They loved the hands-on experience. It gave them confidence."

O'Neal continued her work in the deaf community when she documented the everyday activities of a deaf family in Tucson. Once a week, she grabbed her camera and followed two hearing children and their deaf parents around the house and on errands. She remembers the project as "a wonderful learning experience."

"The parents were very particular about playing the parental role, especially in public. When they were buying a car, the dealer would look to the 14-year-old son to answer questions. People wanted to depend on the children, because that was the easiest thing to do."

She now smiles at memorable moments, like the time the little girl cranked up the rap music in the car as her mother drove on or when the preteen boy slipped a bad word when his dad wasn't looking.

O'Neal now lives in Chicago, where she works at a children's photography studio. She said that at the end of the year, she will take off for her six-month project in Ireland. There, she will work once again with deaf children, helping them produce in-depth self-portrait books.

"I work well with children," said O'Neal, who hopes to open her own studio.O'Neal received an award of 9,000 euros (about $11,500) from the Fulbright Scholarship Program. Cameras, film and other materials for the children will be donated by PhotoVision, Classic Kids and Paper Source.

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