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March 6, 2005

Deaf, hearing worlds merge

From: Indianapolis Star - USA - Mar 6, 2005

Sign-language programs help students form new friendships.

By Olivia Mozzi, 17
March 6, 2005

There was a time when most Americans needed to know only English to get by. This changed as more and more immigrants brought their native languages to this country. To better understand each other, these immigrants learned English, and many Americans learned their languages.

But barriers remain between people who share the same language and culture. Communication between deaf and hearing people always has been problematic, but young people have begun to cross those barriers as more and more schools offer American Sign Language programs.

Y-Press recently interviewed students on both sides of such a friendship. Jennifer McNamara and Jordan Maxwell, both 16, take ASL classes at Carmel High School to better communicate with their deaf friends. Allison Giesting, 18, and Jon Mowl, 17, attend Indiana School for the Deaf but also have hearing friends.

Socializing with peers

Jon comes from a deaf family but socializes with hearing people from his classes at IUPUI and at sports competitions. Allison lost her hearing at age 2 after being treated for a brain tumor. Her family can hear, as can many of her friends from her hometown of Waldron.

Just as there are a variety of cultures among ethnic groups, a distinct deaf culture also exists. Hearing people rely on the spoken word and sounds. Everything from alarms to drive-through windows at restaurants and banks require the ability to hear. On the other hand, most deaf people use sign language to communicate and rely on visual stimulation or physical gestures. Both cultures share some forms of communication, such as the Internet, writing and movies with captioning.

While Jon has always lived in the deaf culture, Allison must move between these worlds weekly -- she spends the week at the Deaf School and goes home on weekends.

"When I go home, I'm in the hearing world; when I come here to school, I'm in the deaf world. Sometimes you don't feel like you're accepted in either world," she said. "It's sort of like there's a fence and there's a gate that I go through."

Allison attended public school through the sixth grade but was lonely.

"My grades were good and the education was wonderful, but socially I felt very withdrawn. I had maybe five, six, seven friends, and everyone was looking at me. And some of my 'friends' thought I was being babied by the teachers.

"So I decided I needed to do something. I had an interpreter, and she told me that there was a school for the deaf. And at that point, I realized I'm not alone, I'm not the only one who's deaf," she said.

Classes at Carmel

Wanting to communicate with deaf friends inspired Jennifer and Jordan to take an ASL class offered at Carmel. Jordan met her friend Rachel when they had a class together at summer school, and Jennifer met her friend Isaac when she baby-sat for his siblings.

"I think that if I hadn't have known (Rachel), I probably wouldn't have taken it," Jordan said. "It was really exciting. And then once I got in there and started learning it, I thought of considering being an interpreter or something."

"I was just blown away. This is what I want to do -- I want to do deaf education," Jennifer added.

Allison can speak as well as sign. She says she has no problem communicating with her friends and family in Waldron.

"My very very best friend is hearing. We communicate fine. I go home every weekend and we go to movies and go shopping and do everything together," she said.

Jon also is enthusiastic about befriending hearing kids.

"I'm taking classes at IUPUI. This one girl was kind of interested. She saw this article about our football team and asked me some questions about it, through the interpreter, of course. And now she's taking American Sign Language classes. I like to educate people about our culture," he said.

Speed is a challenge

Being friends with someone who has different abilities can be a challenge, as these youth have found. Fluency is the biggest problem starting out.

"When you're first learning, what is so frustrating is people go at their own speed," Jennifer said. "You have to say, 'Slow down, tell me what you're saying, do each sign, do each finger spell' (spelling out individual letters). You're nervous and you're freaking out because you don't understand, and then people get upset because you don't understand.

Added Jordan, "A lot of times it's hard for me because I don't want to have to finger spell every single word."

Jon and Allison agree that both parties need to be patient.

"We're not going to be able to communicate fluently when we first meet," Jon said. "We certainly can write back and forth, and some deaf people have text pagers, and you can communicate that way. But a five-minute conversation would take about 20 minutes."

Misunderstandings are inevitable.

"When I don't understand about my friend, I usually ask her about it," Jordan said.

"And it gets really frustrating, 'cause she'll be like, 'Oh, you don't understand,' because I'm not deaf and I don't understand why she thinks that way or what she's going through. And I want to understand her, where she's coming from, but I can't, and we always end up arguing."

Some people also respond badly when encountering a person different from themselves.

"I went to the YMCA, I go there a lot, and this guy came up to me. He said, 'Can you read lips?' and I said, 'No.' And he went, 'Oh, OK,' and he walked away. I thought, 'I just understood what you said, right? What are you thinking?' " Jon said.

Rewarding relationships

But friendships between deaf and hearing youth can be rewarding.

"It's changed my whole perspective on life. I've learned not to judge people just because you're a certain way. And also, there's not, like, a 'normal,' " Jordan said.

"It's helped me view things better from both sides of the spectrum. I understand that deaf people see things differently than we do, and we see things differently than deaf people do. I get a gist of that side of the spectrum because I have been exposed to it," Jennifer said.

The youth have advice for other teens who are interested in crossing these communication barriers.

"We face the same challenges that you face every day," Allison said. "If you want to become friends with someone, what do you do? You introduce yourself, same thing (for us). I don't feel just because a person's hearing I'm going to give up.

"I think we seem to automatically think there's a barrier between hearing and deaf people and that you can't get through to one another.

"But the truth is, you can. It takes time, it takes patience, yes, but it can happen. It can work."


REPORTER: Julie Kippenbrock, 12

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