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April 17, 2005

SWCID began as fulfillment of parents' dream

From:, TX - Apr 17, 2005

Johnnye Montgomery
Midland Reporter-Telegram

BIG SPRING - The Southwest Collegiate Institute for the Deaf all began in 1979 during a meeting in Odessa of the Ector County Independent School District Day School Program for the Deaf, with parents and faculty trading ideas on how to offer better extended education options for deaf students.

At that time, only Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, in Rochester, Minn., offered classes in which the lectures were signed by the professors as they spoke, according to transcripts of speeches given by Douglas Burke, designer and original head of SWCID. Both Gallaudet and NTID had long waiting lists, and were far from West Texas.

There was an increasing number of programs with American Sign Language interpreters at colleges for hearing students, but they were marginally successful. The instructors could not communicate directly with their students, and the students were unable to participate in classroom discussions and were shut out from collegiate social activities. They dropped out at rates as high as 75 to 80 percent.

The parents' dream was to start a college for the deaf close to home - ideally in Texas - where the instructors lectured in ASL, and where classmates and school office staff all were proficient in ASL.

As it happened, one of those parents, Fred Maddux, was from Big Spring. And Maddux suggested that some of the old Webb Air Force Base buildings and land might be available for use by such a school.

The city was willing to give the Webb buildings and land if the state Legislature would provide funding. As word got around, more and more influential citizens from Big Spring and around the state got involved. Maddux's 9-year-old daughter, Erin, wrote then-governor Bill Clements and Clements responded with his full support.

But the timing was wrong. For the college to win approval of the Legislature, there would have to be a feasibility study done, which would take months, or perhaps even years. And the legislative session was winding down. If no act was passed in this session, it would be two years before the matter could be taken up again.

The citizens of Big Spring and of Texas had come too far to see their dreams of a college for the deaf sidelined by lawmakers ready to go home. It was learned that the feasibility study could be bypassed if the school were sponsored by an existing college. Big Spring's up-and-coming community college, Howard College, stepped up to the plate with a sponsorship offer, and the committee went back to Austin with the legalities taken care of.

Southwest Collegiate Institute for the Deaf was formally established in September 1980, funded by leftover vocational education monies from the Texas Education Agency.

The following year, SWCID was approved by the Legislature. It has been a line item on the state budget ever since, under the sponsorship of Howard College.

The school's first faculty, staff, and 22 students first cleaned the drafty dorms adapted from Webb barracks, and then moved into them. The newest building was the base's six-year-old hospital. The barracks have since been torn down to make way for the new brick structures, but the hospital remains and serves as meeting rooms, offices and classrooms.

Living for the first time in their lives in an atmosphere where the first mode of communication was ASL, the students settled in and made SWCID their home.

They made jokes, their fingers flying, about the dirt, and the wind, and the electrical blackouts, and the occasional plumbing problem. They learned the fun of having a social life where ASL was the first language. They had ball games, and contests, and dances, feeling the music with their feet, the way that all dancers do.

In class, they learned from instructors who spoke with their hands, and they studied together, played together, and when their studies took them across town to Howard College, they found the students and faculty there friendly and interested in them.

People from the community came to SWCID wanting to learn American Sign Language, and for a time, classes in signing were conducted at Big Spring High School.

SWCID enrollment has grown steadily since that beginning; presently it stands at 150. Its alumni have gone on to colleges throughout the nation, including Gallaudet, but others transferred to schools for the hearing.

© 2005