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April 11, 2005

Seeing all the signs

From:, KY - Apr 11, 2005

By Megan Boehnke

For the three people gathered around a table in a desolate Student Center, voices were quiet but conversation was flowing.

Dick Purnell and Diane Cross, employees in UK's Disability Resource Center, sat with one of their students, laughing as they signed quickly with their hands.

"Oh, I'll brag for you," Purnell said, turning. "In the weightlifting contest, Terry lifted more weight than any of the other linebackers both times last year."

Terry Clayton half-smiled shyly, glancing down while gesturing with his hands.

"I don't like to brag," he signed. "I don't want to say that."

Terry Clayton is a linebacker for the UK football team.

And although he occasionally talks in one-on-one conversations, he is legally deaf.

"You should tell them honestly that you are really a mama's boy," Purnell joked, causing a wave of amusement at the table, mostly from Clayton.

"Yeah, I am really a teddy bear," Clayton said with a smile.

"Terry and I tease each other all the time," Purnell said. "We get along great."

Purnell has been an interpreter for 30 years, earning a degree in deaf education at the University of Nebraska.

Cross majored in interpreting and has been working in that field for almost 20 years.

As one of many services provided to students through UK's Disability Resource Center, Purnell and Cross work with hearing-impaired students, signing for them in class.

He and Cross have been working with Clayton for about two years.

"I don't want any new interpreters here at UK," Clayton said. "I am really comfortable with Diane and Dick."

The duo first met Clayton two summers ago.

After then-recruiting coordinator Joker Phillips sought out Clayton when he played football for Logan County (Ky.) High School, Clayton decided to come up for the summer to meet the interpreters.

"I wanted to see if they were any good," Clayton said, laughing.

After being asked to work with Clayton over the summer, Purnell decided to stay and help Clayton when the fall semester started.

Purnell and Cross are both contracted by UK through the school's Disability Resource Center. They work with Clayton, UK's only deaf full-time student, on a daily basis, as well as a handful of other part-time students.

The Disability Resource Center also provides note-takers for classes in which Clayton and other hearing-impaired students are enrolled. During class, Clayton focuses on his signer and absorbs the lecture.

"If he (Clayton) was to look down even for a minute, he is probably missing really important information," Cross said. "That's why they need note-takers."

The Resource Center does "all of the behind the scenes work," Purnell said. The center contacts professors before the semester begins, explaining that a disabled student will be enrolled in their classes.

The center ensures that the class will have a designated note-taker and that all other needs for the students be met, such as providing captions when viewing films.

Purnell likened his work to that of a referee in a basketball game.

"We don't want to be noticed; we want people to focus on our students," Purnell said. "If we are in the forefront, then we're not doing our jobs right.

"We know we are a curiosity when we sit in class and we are signing and people wonder, 'What is that guy doing down there in front?' But after a couple of weeks in class, people get used to it," he said.

To meet Clayton's needs, Purnell and Cross follow him to class every day, signing for him during lectures. Occasionally, their commitment exceeds their obligation.

"Sometimes Terry will call me on a Sunday afternoon and say 'Hey, I'm stuck here at the library. I can't find this and I can't understand the librarian, can you come?'" Purnell said.

"And I come. I don't mind. I tell people all the time, as long as he is willing and working, then I am willing."

Purnell said he never worries about Clayton's work ethic.

"The effort is always there," Purnell said. "I have seen him rewrite papers four, five, six times."

Papers and reports are difficult for Clayton. The grammar of sign language is different than that of English, meaning he writes in a different language than he "speaks."

"It is no different than a student with a second language," Purnell said. "If we have a student here from another country, they struggle with English grammar."

While Purnell and Cross are available to help Clayton with his 12 academic hours, he's on his own for football.

"There is a lot of work to do in football and sometimes I don't understand everything," Clayton said. "There are a lot of different things to learn and a lot of information.

"It is tough to read lips for several hours and make sure you get everything exactly right."

For Clayton, however, growing up with the game helped him.

Clayton claims he never really tried when playing little league football, but once he hit high school, he began to take the sport a little more seriously.

As a senior, Clayton played in the Kentucky All-Star game against all-stars from Tennessee. During that game, an interpreter helped him out.

"All the other players thought that was cool," Clayton said. "I really wish I had interpreters at football."

While team meetings are sometimes challenging, most of the difficulty comes out on the field.

When players have facemasks on and mouth pieces in, Clayton said it's a lot tougher for him to read lips and understand what is going on, particularly when calls have been changed.

"I have to really memorize the plays and know by looking that they are changing it," the linebacker said. "The key is to watch the offensive line."

Occasionally, he fails to hear a whistle, resulting in a late hit.

While Clayton finds certain cues on the field to be difficult, Purnell thinks he may have at least one advantage: his eyes.

"It's so hard to explain, but a deaf person spends their whole life depending on vision," Purnell said. "So, they have the ability to see and notice things that you and I wouldn't because we don't have to depend on it."

Because of this, Clayton believes that it is possible that he is a little more observant on the field, especially in reading the offensive line's body language.

But the bottom line is that Clayton simply loves everything about football.

"I love the contact and I love running to the ball," he said. "And I really like meeting all the guys on the team and getting to know them ... I feel like we are all really good friends."

Following his uncle, Mark Clayton, who played for the Miami Dolphins, and his cousin, Michael Clayton Jr., who is a rookie for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Clayton entertains goals of one day making it in the NFL himself.

"It doesn't matter if I am deaf or not, I can still do it," Clayton said. "What is really important are my skills."

Currently, Clayton is the only deaf player in the Southeastern Conference, and as far as he knows, the only deaf Division I player in the country.

"I can do anything if they give me a chance," he said.

In the middle of his conversation at the Student Center, a teammate walked by, slapped Clayton on the back and talked to him for a few minutes.

"See, he does really well one-on-one," Purnell said as he leaned over. "It is in groups that he has trouble and distance, like teachers lecturing, because he can't see to read lips."

While Clayton has ambitious plans for his football career, the recently declared social work major has two years of school left before completing his degree.

Purnell and Cross plan to help him all the way through.

"It has really been enjoyable," Purnell said. "Terry is a good kid and he is fun to work with.

"I wouldn't trade it for anything."


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