IM this article to a friend!

December 21, 2004

Eye for detail helps ECC grad thrive

From: Chicago Daily Herald - Chicago,IL,USA - Dec 21, 2004

By Christine Byers
Daily Herald Staff Writer

It's through her eyes that Joanna Bixby interacts with the silent world around her.

Whether it was, as a 10-month-old, watching her mother sign the word "Mom" and mimicking the motion, or studying the lips of those who don't use sign language, the St. Charles resident has relied on her hazel eyes to do what her ears can't.

And for the past three years, the 19-year-old has parlayed her reliance on visuals into a degree in graphic arts at Elgin Community College. Today, she'll accept her diploma. She hopes to continue her education at the Illinois Institute of Art in Schaumburg next year.

It's her attention to detail that separates her from others, said Tim Kaar, one of Bixby's instructors.

"She's much more observant," Kaar said. "It's the way she understands her environment."

It's also how her parents, Susan and John Bixby, learned their youngest of four children had severe hearing loss when she was 8 months old.

"I remember she was sitting on my lap and they rang a bell by her and she was supposed to blink," said Susan Bixby. "But she didn't."

She was born 2 months premature, and doctors think an antibiotic caused her hearing loss.

For three days, Susan cried and wondered how her family could cope with the news.

"Then I thought, 'She's only deaf,'" she said. "We just need to learn another language."

Susan Bixby learned sign language in time to be an interpreter during some kindergarten classes. That's when she noticed Joanna's artistic talent.

At age 7, Joanna drew a picture of a fish. But instead of drawing a simple tail, fins and eyes, Joanna drew scales, the lines on the fish's fins and gills.

Her ability to see detail that others may miss comes from how hard she concentrates to keep up with the hearing world, Joanna said.

"I have to think much harder," she said, as she moved her hands feverishly in sign language to coincide with her spoken words. "And the more I do, the more detail I see."

Along with her graphic design work, Joanna has tackled another project for the last three years: learning to hear.

At 16 - the same year she finished high school as a home-schooled student - Joanna received a cochlear implant that allows her to hear as well as most people. But making sense of the hearing world still is a challenge.

"It's like if you go to France, you hear the language, but you don't completely understand it," Joanna said. "Signing is my first language, so (hearing English) is like a foreign language to me."

"It's like her ears are only 3 years old," Susan Bixby said.

So, imagine the fear Joanna felt when she learned she'd be a graphic arts tour guide at ECC as part of her scholarship requirements.

"I was like, 'Hello? I'm deaf,'" Joanna said, her face lighting up with laughter. "What if they don't understand me or they just pretend?"

But students paid more attention to her than any other tour guides, she said.

"They were fascinated with my sign language," she said.

In class, Joanna always had an interpreter. Trying to read teachers' lips as they walked around the room was too hard. In situations where communication becomes a barrier with the hearing, some deaf people get frustrated, Joanna said.

In one of her projects, Joanna depicted herself in a tunnel with lightning rods striking on and around her. She looks like she's wondering which way to go.

"It's the hearing culture and the deaf culture, and who do I really belong to," Joanna said. "I'm kind of stuck."

But instead of focusing on the barriers, Joanna finds ways to overcome them, Kaar said.

"As a teacher, you see students who have all of these advantages, but sometimes they're just mad at the world," Kaar said. "And here you see someone who's used these challenges as an opportunity for growth."

That's the way Joanna sees it.

© 2004 Daily Herald, Paddock Publications, Inc.