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February 6, 2005

Turning the Volume Down

From: Washington Post - Washington,DC,USA - Feb 6, 2005

Hearing Student at Gallaudet Blossoms in Deaf Culture

By Manny Fernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page A01

It was late afternoon, and snow was pelting down outside when Jenn Legg needed to speak some of her very first words of the day.

"There's nothing on the ground," Legg told Anthony Adamo, dismissing the snowfall with a shrug. "I'm from Iowa."

Already six hours into the college day, Legg had raised questions in her morning senior thesis class, taken a Spanish vocabulary quiz and shared lunch with several friends at the student union.

All of that, however, had been in sign language. She had virtually no use for the spoken word until she encountered Adamo. They are two among a handful of students who can hear among the hundreds who cannot at Gallaudet University. The students who have full hearing are a hidden minority on a campus where a minority -- the deaf and hard of hearing -- is dominant.

For Legg and the other hearing undergraduates -- HUGs, as they are known on campus -- the college experience at the nation's premier university for the deaf has unfolded almost as if she were in a foreign land.

She attends classes taught by deaf professors, eats dinner in a cafeteria with deaf classmates and lives with three deaf or hard-of-hearing roommates. The guys sitting next to her in Spanish, the girls on the basketball team, the college president -- all are deaf.

Legg and the other HUGs sleep in dorm rooms without telephones. They learn to live with deaf neighbors who turn up their stereos to wall-shaking volume to feel the beat, an ironic twist on a campus often mistaken as a silent place. They study the history of deaf culture, and many plan careers in deaf education.

Attending Gallaudet is more than an academic adventure for Legg. It feels like home. Raised by deaf parents, Legg learned how to sign before she learned how to speak. She was a shy girl from Cedar Rapids who grew up knowing only a handful of deaf children her age. At Gallaudet, she has blossomed, joining a deaf sorority and bonding with a wide circle of deaf friends.

"Everybody knows me as Jenn," said the 23-year-old senior, "not as the girl whose parents are deaf."

Some of her instructors had no idea she was able to hear. They thought she was just like everyone else. Visual Reality

Legg awakens most mornings to the beeping of an alarm clock. Her deaf neighbors in the dorm are shaken from sleep by vibrating disks tucked under pillows or mattresses.

One recent morning inside Clerc Hall, the high-rise residential building at the edge of campus, the two sounds -- the buzzing of her clock and the distant throb of alarm vibrations -- made strange, off-beat music.

For Legg and the 21 other students with full hearing, life at Gallaudet is a kind of alternate reality. For 140 years, the red-brick campus in a gritty neighborhood in Northeast Washington off Florida Avenue has served as a kind of Harvard for the deaf, an academic and cultural center where 1,400 students go to research, understand and celebrate deafness.

It is the eye, not the ear, that dominates here. There is no doorbell outside Legg's white-painted two-bedroom suite; instead, there are large buttons that visitors push that make lights inside the room flicker. On a patch of grass near the main entrance to campus stands a five-foot granite sculpture not of a man, but of an eye.

Legg feels comfortable in such a visual place. She was just an infant in Cedar Rapids when she formed a fist and squeezed a few times -- her first sign, the sign for milk. Her parents, David and Theresa Legg, began using a sign to represent her name when she was a child. She still uses it today, a pinkie lightly scratching the chin, a play on the gesture for "precious."

After stepping from the shower, her long blond hair bundled up in a pink towel, she sat on the edge of her bed and stared at a tiny screen. Legg, like scores of other Gallaudet students, carries a T-Mobile Sidekick, a hand-held, high-tech gadget she uses to send and receive instant messages and e-mail. She checked her messages, packed some books into her backpack and headed outside into the cold, leaving on her dresser something other college students never leave home without -- her cell phone.

She thinks of spoken English as her second language.

"I can express myself more easily with sign language than I can with words," she said. An Embracing Culture

It was lunchtime at the student union, and Legg ate a salad outside a food bar. All around her, students conversed in a flurry of signs and finger-spellings. Legg took a bite of food, put down her fork, made signs with her right hand, picked up the fork again and then dropped it once more to continue the conversation.

She once worried about fitting in, but no longer.

Some hearing undergraduates enter the university bashful about being able to hear or nervous about being outcasts in a place that prizes deafness.

The university's decision in 2000 to admit hearing undergraduates was controversial. Gallaudet had long admitted hearing graduate students, but some deaf students felt that allowing them in undergraduate programs was different and worried that the new students would tarnish the school's identity. Many of the university's deaf and hard-of-hearing students do not consider deafness a disability, and they have little patience for people who can hear treating them as if they need help.

But the hearing undergraduate program has generally received positive reviews. Legg and other non-deaf students say the experience gives them a window into the richness of the deaf world, reversing what it means to be disabled by seeing many advantages that come with being able to hear as disadvantages.

"If anyone is lacking anything, it is me," said Will Garrow, 32, one of the first HUG students to graduate and now an adjunct faculty member. "They have deaf culture naturally. . . . They live it. I have to learn it."

Former and current HUG students say they choose to study at Gallaudet for reasons more personal than academic. Some, like Legg, are the children of deaf parents who prefer deaf environments and are highly skilled at sign language. Others have an interest in deaf culture and want to work or teach in deaf communities.

Legg said she felt at home at Gallaudet within weeks of arriving in spring 2003, when she transferred as a sophomore from McDaniel College, formerly known as Western Maryland College. Some girls in Clerc Hall came to her room at Benson Hall after she first moved in and said they needed a new roommate. She told them that she could hear, but it didn't seem to matter. "She's the first HUG student to come into our sorority, Delta Epsilon," said her roommate and sorority sister Angela Sanchez, 25, who is hard of hearing.

Inside the crowded student union, in a room alive with hand movements, Legg chimed in to conversations, speaking not a word, just mouthing occasional signs. A lot of people on campus tell her that they forget she hears.

She considers it a compliment. Getting Into the Rhythm

Legg and her Gallaudet friends elbowed their way across the dance floor of the D.C. nightclub Dream a few minutes after 11 p.m. Blue strobe lights spun across the wooden floor as rap music played.

Legg and about six friends signed to each other in the darkness of the room, left hand for drinks, right hand for signing. They moved to the bass beat of a 50 Cent tune. Only Legg could hear the lyrics of the songs, but it didn't seem to matter.

Music is an important part of the Gallaudet culture; some deaf students walk around with oversized headphones, cranking Metallica, feeling the vibrating rhythm. Legg has occasionally had to ask her dorm neighbors to turn down the volume on their stereos. A deaf person may live in a world of silence, but Gallaudet is a place made noisy by the stamping of feet and pounding of hands on tables in the classroom or cafeteria to get people's attention when their backs are turned. One hearing man who graduated from Gallaudet years ago said he used to sleep with earplugs.

Not every HUG forms as tight a bond with deaf students as Legg has. Adamo, a popular hearing undergrad whose parents are deaf and whom Legg bumped into earlier in the afternoon, said one former HUG made utterances while signing, offending him by pretending to be deaf.

Some of the young people dancing at Dream stared at the group talking to each other with their fingers. Legg ignored them and swayed with her friends.

Sometimes, she has told hearing people that she has deaf parents, and they reacted by telling her, "I'm sorry."

She said she has never understood what there is to be sorry about.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company