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February 10, 2005

Silent treatment Deaf professor recalls isolated childhood

From: Laurel Leader, MD - Feb 10, 2005

Diane Reynolds

A simple invitation to a birthday party at a dinner theater presents Laurel resident Gina Oliva with a dilemma that most of us will never have to face: Does she fight for a good sign-language interpreter so she can participate in what is going on around her or does she stay at home?

At least now she has a choice as to whether to avoid situations that isolate her.

It wasn't always that way. In the public schools in the 1950s and 1960s, she was mainstreamed, or placed in a typical classroom, fending for herself despite her hearing loss.

Oliva has written a book detailing the issues faced by mainstreamed deaf students. "Alone in the Mainstream: A Deaf Woman Remembers Public School" documents her experiences and those of 60 other deaf students who were mainstreamed in schools all over the United States.

"I really, really wanted to help make hearing people, especially parents of today's deaf and hard-of-hearing children, understand what the solitary (deaf) experience is usually like," she wrote in an e-mail.

Oliva's intent was "to publish something that the average person can read," she said in a phone interview using a relay phone. In the relay conversation, the reporter asked questions that were typed by an operator.

"From the start," she wrote, " 'inclusion' for me has been almost a dirty word, because it is simply not inclusive, and I find it a maddeningly misleading term for the clueless world at large."

While many in the disability community would see mainstreaming as placing a disabled child in a typical classroom without supports and inclusion as providing needed supports, Oliva uses the two terms interchangeably because, she argues, neither works for the deaf.

Deafness creates a language barrier, but unlike children from a foreign countries, deaf children just can't "pick up" spoken English, Oliva said. And schools don't typically teach sign language to the hearing.

To Oliva, mainstreamed deaf and hard-of-hearing children are "solitaires," a term that connotes both their aloneness and the way they shine brilliantly, like diamonds.

Oliva grew up as a solitaire in Cos Cob, Conn., daughter of a hearing mother and a deaf father. In kindergarten she couldn't hear the musical cues the teacher used to change activities and was soon fitted with a hearing aid.

Every day, her mother would carefully comb her hair over her hearing aide, she wrote, teaching her that her hearing loss was something to hide.

As the only hard-of-hearing student in her schools growing up, she can count her friends from those years on her fingers. The casual conversations others had around her sounded like radio static or a buzz. She has never been able to follow a dinner-table conversation.

A typical experience for her occurred in the sixth grade. Oliva invited a group of girls she wanted to be friends with to a slumber party. The other girls, Oliva reported in her book, stayed up all night talking, while she "lay in the dark, hearing their voices but not understanding one word they said."

Other deaf people interviewed for the book remembered peers teasing them by talking to them with their hands over their mouths and asking them to tell what was being said, ridiculing them for wearing hearing aids or accusing them of not really being deaf.

They also spoke of teachers facing the board while speaking, refusing to make accommodations such as letting them sit near the front of the room, and telling humiliating jokes at their expense.

For Oliva, school days were mostly lonely. "When I try to remember my junior high years, I see myself walking to school alone," she wrote in her book. "I see myself gathering up my books quickly whenever the bell rang, going directly to my next class, sitting down and getting my homework out, waiting for the class to start. I never talked to anyone."

Oliva remembered inviting the "cool kids" over for parties as a teen. "I was left alone. ... I would busy myself with setting up food, putting away food ... or pretending I had something to do upstairs." Nobody tried to interact with her.

When an invitation came to her for her 10th high school reunion, she didn't go. "I still felt badly that my high school classmates had never gotten to know me," she wrote. She feared being ignored.

Oliva attended Washington College in Chestertown where, once again, she spent much of her time alone.

One day, while eating alone in the cafeteria, she saw a visiting group of soccer players at another table. They were from Gallaudet University, a Washington, D.C., college for the deaf, and they were using American Sign Language, though Oliva didn't know this at the time.

Oliva felt an immediate surge of excitement when she saw the deaf soccer players communicating. She knew she had come home.

"Metdeafwow!" is how she described it.

She petitioned, and won the right, to spend her senior year at Gallaudet.

Now, she was not only deaf, as in unable to hear or hear clearly, but Deaf with a capital D, a term denoting being part of a vibrant culture with its own language and concerns.

She found a career at Gallaudet, where she is a professor in the physical education and recreation department, and has lived in the Montpelier neighborhood in Laurel for the past 25 years.

Her book is a plea for Deaf culture and people to be nurtured and honored in public-school settings and the world at large.

The book, the first in a series called "Deaf Lives" published by Gallaudet University Press, is having an impact on the deaf community, several of her colleagues said.

One impact is therapeutic, Oliva said, by encouraging other deaf people to examine and articulate their own experiences.

The book is "an opportunity for us ... to share our experiences of loneliness, ostracism, communication difficulties and feelings of inferiority," agreed deaf Gallaudet biology teacher and former dean Jane Dillehay, who wrote that one of her New Year's resolutions was to get out the word on Oliva's book.

"Gina's book speaks well for what my school life was like" both in terms of loneliness and difficulties with teachers, e-mailed solitaire Linda Lytle, a psychologist. "I don't think most people can really understand how much emotional energy it takes for a deaf child to attend school where he/she lacks deaf peers," she wrote.

Second, Oliva's colleagues point to the sections in the book about Summer, a deaf young woman who grew up participating in both the hearing and Deaf worlds. Summer provides a real-life model that can show parents, both hearing and deaf, what deaf children need to thrive both academically and socially.

As evidence of the book's popularity, more than a hundred Gallaudet students came to a presentation Oliva gave last fall, as did Gallaudet's president, I. King Jordan, said Oliva's friend and fellow teacher, Anne Simonsen, a hearing woman.

Simonsen said that even after many years of friendship with Oliva, she had no idea what her friend had undergone until she read the book.

"Hearing people just don't understand," she said, even those at Gallaudet. "We can leave it (the deaf world) every day."

Oliva stressed that not much has changed emotionally for mainstreamed hard-of-hearing students since her time.

Still, a dilemma remains: The deaf and hard-of-hearing people interviewed for the book, all college graduates, agreed that the public school mainstream education they received was superior to what they would have gotten in a deaf school.

Was the lonely experience worth it for the academic gains?

For Oliva, the question is frustrating. It doesn't have to be an either-or situation, she said.

Summer camps for deaf children, weekend visits with other deaf children, and friends and mentors in the Deaf community can mitigate feelings of isolation and teach children to value the great richness of Deaf culture, she said.

The problem is sometimes well-meaning parents who want their children to do the impossible: fit in seamlessly with the hearing world.

As for schools, "if you can have six deaf or heard-of-hearing kids in one classroom, that would be great," Oliva said. "I definitely would advocate for that."

To her, however, the ideal is a school like the Frederick School for the Deaf, where "you have a critical mass" of deaf students. "Six is good, 28 is better," she said.

As for the dinner theater birthday party, Oliva decided not to go. Persuading the theater to hire a good sign language interpreter would be more of a hassle than it was worth, she said. She plans to meet with her friend one-on-one, so they can communicate, she said.

"Yes, you never get used to it, and yes, it is a lifelong thing," she said of being deaf in a hearing world.

"Do I lose sleep over it?" she added. "No."

Oliva has scheduled two signings of "Alone in the Mainstream": one at the Special Needs Library, 6400 Democracy Blvd. in Bethesda, on March 29 at 7:15 p.m. and one at Bethany Community Church, 15720 Riding Stable Road in Laurel, on April 1 at 7:30 p.m.

E-mail Diane Reynolds at

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