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April 15, 2005

Parents of deaf children make tough decisions

From: Daily Texan - Austin,TX,USA - Apr 15, 2005

Many attend schools that are 'mainstreamed,' may feel secluded

By Kristin Butler

The students' hands make rapid motions - their animated faces revealing their tone. They pound on the desk to get the teacher's attention. Students at the Texas School for the Deaf communicate visually. Sometimes this involves facial expressions and signals, but mostly the students rely on American Sign Language.

Parents of deaf children face a challenging decision: whether to send their child to public school with mostly hearing students, or to enroll them in a specialized school for the deaf.

The majority of deaf children are "mainstreamed," but Gene Mirus, a deaf anthropology graduate student at UT, thinks children tend to feel secluded in a primarily hearing environment.

"In theory, and in the eyes of uninformed hearing parents and professionals, mainstreaming seems like the best option," Mirus said. "In reality, most deaf children experience severe isolation among their hearing, non-signing peers." Since this isolation can stunt their language and psychosocial development, Mirus said, it is becoming more popular for parents to send their children to the Texas School for the Deaf.

Diane Poeppelmeyer, coordinator of the education resource center on deafness at Texas School for the Deaf, agrees that students should at least be in contact with a deaf community.

"I think being a part of the deaf community is beneficial," Poeppelmeyer said. "They don't have to live here, but they certainly need exposure to it."


Some children at the Texas School for the Deaf opt to be mainstreamed for part of the day. Third-grader Amelia Hamilton attends the school as well as a mainstream school with hearing kids her age. The communication barrier at public school doesn't trouble Hamilton that much.

"I feel, 'Oh well.' If I really want to know what they're saying, I can write it down or ask the interpreter," she said. Hamilton said she prefers to use American Sign Language when possible, because she can communicate more effectively.

At mainstream schools, communication for deaf students requires interpreting, writing or lip-reading and pronunciation skills. Hamilton introduces herself with her unique individual sign, rotating her index finger on the side of her cheek as she brightly smiles. "My mom gave me this sign because of my dimple," she signs to her interpreter.

Hamilton is deaf and comes from generations of deaf families. Despite her background, Hamilton does not segregate herself from the hearing world.

"They like me," she said. "I like the other kids in public school as well."

Hamilton's outgoing personality is uninhibited by her deafness or inability to talk like many of her fellow students. She finds other modes of communication, and her peers include her in things like they do every other hearing student. They even give her special privileges. "People always say, 'Come on, Amelia, you can be first in line,'" she said. "I guess it's because I'm deaf."

At the Texas School for the Deaf, cutting-edge technology, such as the active boards that allow students to solve math problems using an electronic pointer on a large screen, are utilized to enhance the learning process. These devices and other visual software at the school make learning easier and more fun for Hamilton, she said.

"Kids who are deaf really need a lot of visuals, where they can focus on what the teacher is saying, instead of looking back and forth from their book," said Donna Altuna, an education lecturer at UT and local campus reading coach for kindergarten through third-grade at the Texas School for the Deaf.

In place of music, students learn drama, and they are also taught something distinctive from the curriculum at most public schools - deaf culture.

"They learn deaf history because it is their culture; it is their pride," Altuna said.

During a deaf culture class April 7, Hamilton stood in front of a class of eight students to read and interpret, using American Sign Language, and an article that flashed on the wall from a projector. The article discussed the "Deaf President Now" protest at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., in 1988 that resulted in the selection of Dr. I. King Jordan as the university's first deaf president.

Melissa Flores, a 24-year-old teacher at TSD, received her bachelor's degree in social work from Gallaudet University. She was only eight years old when the protest happened but still finds it very significant. Growing up, Flores first attended mainstream schools and later switched to a specialized school for the deaf. Deaf people need experience with both deaf and hearing communities, "because they have to be able to function in both," Flores said.

Living in two worlds

Because Flores is from a hearing family, she said she sees the importance of assimilating in to both worlds. Yet, she finds it hard to explain which community she primarily relates to best. She likes communicating with her deaf peers, but feels the education at all deaf- and hearing-impaired schools is slower than her learning pace. Many deaf students struggle with reading and are naturally slower at developing communication skills, since they are not able to sound out words, Altuna said.

"For education purposes, I prefer to be in a mainstream environment, because it's more intellectually stimulating," Flores said.

To decrease the separation between deaf and hearing, the Texas School for the Deaf takes its students on field trips. Senior speech pathology major Katherine Lowry interns at the school and said that on her seven-week rotation with the middle school's special-needs department, they went on field trips to routine places such as grocery stores and the mall. Lowry and the teachers tested the children's communication skills with hearing people by having them ask employees for help without assistance from a translator. Lowry said they would warn the information desk or employees that the children were deaf and would be asking questions. Then, they'd cut the children loose.

"We'd say, 'We're going to leave; you're going to have to ask for help,'" Lowry said. "They would have a notebook with pictures, and they'd have to go to the information desk and ask for help - what to do if they're lost, where to find something at the grocery store."

Lowry is one of 13-junior level interns from UT practicing American Sign Language with the students and assisting them with concepts they are learning in class. The interns spend time at three different locations: middle school, career technology education and special needs.

Support for the deaf community

UT plays an active role in supporting the deaf community in Austin. The UT organization Students Advocating Deaf Awareness attends Texas School for the Deaf events such as plays. The group is hosting their biggest event, a Texas School for the Deaf Sports Day, on April 28. Members will lead this field day event along with UT athletes and any other students interested in helping.

There are no active deaf members in the group this year, although there have been a few in previous years. The club bonds through various social events such as silent dinners. "We go to a restaurant and try to only use ASL," SADA President Heather Keiler-Green said.

The silent dinners tend to attract attention from people nearby. "People see us using sign language and ask us questions," Keiler-Green said. "A lot of people have never been around a deaf person."

UT accommodates its deaf students in a variety of ways. The University provides ASL interpreters if desired, but many other options exist. Other forms of assistance include note-takers, a program in which the student can arrange for a classmate to take notes on carbon copy paper or through computer-assisted, real-time transcription [CART], in which someone acts similar to a court reporter.

"Sometimes the CART system is hooked up to a remote site, so the court reporter is not even present in the classroom, and through the computer system, it presents real-time captioning, only slightly delayed, on the student's screen," said Mark Bernstein, associate dean and coordinator for the deaf education undergraduate major.

The city of Austin also works closely with the deaf community by having a sign language interpreter at all city council meetings. "If a deaf person wants to get up in front and testify," Bernstein said, "a sign language interpreter will translate if necessary."

Understanding deafness

Bernstein teaches a course on deaf studies education and another upper-division communication studies course, which examines the complex aspects of deaf culture. His course addresses how some people self-identify as deaf, while others choose not to use ASL, as well as topics like psycho social and emotional-social development of deaf persons.

"There are lots of different ways to 'be deaf,'" Bernstein said. "There's no single description of what it means."

Lowry, through her internship at the Texas School for the Deaf, has realized there are many misconceptions of deaf people, but that they are basically just like any hearing person with a communication barrier to overcome. Their deafness doesn't prevent them from going to the movie theater, or swaying to music. Just because they can't hear the tune,doesn't mean they can't feel the rhythm.

"We had a Valentine's Day dance in the cafeteria for the middle school students, and they had the treble all the way down and the bass all the way up," Lowry said. "They were dancing and having a great time."

© 2005 Daily Texan