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April 10, 2005

Breaking the sound barrier

From: Aberdeen American News - Aberdeen,SD,US - Apr 10, 2005

Deaf students 'can succeed anywhere,' but social stereotypes prompt support of hearing-impaired community of Laurent near Salem, S.D.

By Elissa Dickey
American News Writer

Chelsea Tobin is bubbly and vibrant. A typical teen, the Langford High School senior has just a bit of a flair for the dramatic.

"I'm a blabbermouth," said a laughing Tobin, 18, of Pierpont.

Her favorite subject is admittedly lunch. And like most teens, she isn't quite sure what she wants to do with her life. Tobin is an active student who excels in everything she does, even speech class.

That's ironic, some would say, considering she "speaks" with her hands using an interpreter.

Tobin is deaf. Not "hearing impaired," which she calls a politically correct term - deaf.

Whatever you call it, one thing is clear - Tobin doesn't let anything stop her.

Neither does Jamie Clausen. The Aberdeen Central High School sophomore has played the piano for seven years and plays flute in the CHS band. She's also been in volleyball and basketball.

Clausen, 15, wants people to know that deaf people can do anything they put their minds to.

"If a person is deaf, they're not disabled," she said. "They are the same as a 'normal' person ... they just can't hear."

Clausen's deafness is believed to have been caused by the overuse of antibiotics for chronic ear infections when she was a baby. Tobin was born deaf. Both girls read lips when necessary but mostly rely on using American Sign Language.

Community for deaf: Although it's clear both Clausen and Tobin are doing fine - exceptionally well, really - right where they're at, they see nothing wrong with a town geared toward people with hearing impairments.

"I think it's a really good thing for deaf people," Clausen said of the proposed town of Laurent.

An out-of-state company is hoping to establish the town of Laurent near Salem for people who use sign language. It is named after Laurent Clerc, who brought sign language to the United States and established the nation's first permanent school for the deaf, according to the proposed town's Web site.

The Web site,, says ground-breaking is expected this spring.

Tobin says she's also supportive of Laurent. For one thing, she said, it would bring more people to South Dakota. It would also add variety to the state.

Laurent would provide deaf people with "a place to call their own," Tobin said.

But, "(deaf people) can succeed anywhere."

Struggles and stereotypes: But in a place such as Laurent, said Clausen, deaf people wouldn't face stereotypes and discrimination.

Unfortunately, stereotypes are something the girls have dealt with.

"(Some people) look at me like I'm stupid," Clausen said, or they say, "you can't do that. But I can."

Her father Kim Clausen said he takes issue with the use of the word "disabled." A person who is deaf is not disabled; rather, he or she has a disability. Kim likens it to someone who wears glasses. This sight impairment does not totally disable him or her, it is a disability he or she has.

"You have to put the person first," he explained. "'A person with a disability.'"

Chelsea Tobin said one big challenge has been attitudes such as "people looking down on deaf people."

She also doesn't like the stereotype that she's not smart just because she's deaf. And people saying she has a disability bothers her a little bit.

"I can run, walk, smile," she said. "I can do everything except hear."

When she ran as Miss Langford in the Snow Queen competition, it was difficult to obtain an interpreter, and she said some people thought "she won't succeed."

But "I could do it," she said.

Right now, she's in the process of running for Miss Deaf South Dakota, which is sponsored by the National Association for the Deaf.

Communication is also an issue, Tobin said. In general, it's much better to sign, she said - imagine trying to read the lips of someone with a mustache covering his mouth, or a mumbler?

She's had an interpreter in school since fifth grade. Her current interpreter is Joyce Levsen. Clausen has had an interpreter since fourth grade. Her current interpreter is Martha Ausborn.

Tobin has good friends now, but when she was little she remembers her deafness sometimes being a "novelty" of sorts for some kids. The novelty would eventually wear off.

Clausen said the biggest challenge she's faced has been social issues, making friends. She also has good friends now. But she remembers times when she was younger feeling excluded among a group of kids laughing and talking. She couldn't hear what they were saying, so she'd ask them what they were laughing about.

Rather than repeat it, they'd just say, "Oh nothing."

Clausen was just beginning to say words when she lost her hearing. After it happened, she stopped talking. So she's been going to school since age 2 in order to pick up vocabulary and learn listening and communication skills.

"I thought it was fun at first," Clausen said. But with a laugh, she added, "Now I'm sick of school (because I've been) going my whole life."

Kim said Jamie went through some difficult times socially. So he and her mom Diane sent her to the South Dakota School for the Deaf in Sioux Falls during eighth and ninth grade. There, Kim said, she gained self-confidence.

Jamie said she learned better social skills there, how to be included - and also something else.

"I learned what it's like to have a real friend," she said, someone who understood her.

That, she says, is how she imagines living in a town like Laurent would be.

Activities and achievements: Clausen likes to hang out with friends, go shopping, drive around - normal teen stuff, she said.

In piano and band, she can hear the music she's playing, but she said when playing music with others, sometimes "it's hard to know if I'm in tune or not."

Clausen also worked for the first time last summer as a junior counselor for Aberdeen Area Courage Day Camp, which is for children who have disabilities. She plans to continue. Before that, she was a camper there.

Tobin has been involved in teaching ASL classes with her mom Evelyn in Langford. Her father is Rodney Tobin.

Chelsea has given presentations at Barrier Awareness Day in Aberdeen the last five years and has told jokes at the Storytelling Festival in Pierpont. She was also selected at Girls State to represent South Dakota at Girls Nation last summer.

In 2003, Tobin was named Outstanding Citizen of the Year by organizations including the Aberdeen Mayor's Advisory Committee for People with Disabilities.

Clausen plans to attend the University of South Dakota in Vermillion and wants to become a veterinarian.

Tobin may attend Augustana College in Sioux Falls, or she may head to D.C. to attend Gallaudet University, the only college in the world strictly for deaf students.

Tobin is considering several career paths. She even has a political side, which surfaced after Girls Nation, and also after spending two weeks as a page for state Democratic Rep. Clayton Halverson during this year's legislative session in Pierre.

Maybe someday she'll run for President?

"Who knows," Tobin said with a smile. "Add it to my list." Reporter Elissa Dickey (605) 622-2301 or 1-800-925-4100 ext. 301;

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