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May 20, 2005

Austine School reaches out to raise awareness in community

From: Brattleboro Reformer - Brattleboro,VT,USA - May 20, 2005

Reformer Staff

BRATTLEBORO -- They're bagging groceries at Hannaford, traveling to Europe, attending prestigious colleges and universities, and providing valuable services to the town.

Students and staff at the Austine School for the Deaf are trying to "build bridges," in the community by raising awareness about who they are, and what goes on at the school.

Along with their parent organization, the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, members of Austine held an open house on Thursday at the Robert H. Gibson River Garden on Main Street.

"We have our own language, our own culture, and it's nice to make people out there more aware of it," signed high school senior Jennifer Harbart.

Harbart's hands flew as she spoke, and Elizabeth Bjerk, wearing a sticker that said "Interpreter" translated the conversation. People wearing similar stickers were floating around, ready to offer information and help bridge the gap between the deaf and the hearing.

After graduation, Harbart said she plans to attend college at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute for Technology in New York. She said some of the dorms are mixed, and she looks forward to interacting with students who can hear.

"Some people are really great and assertive and have active gestures," she said, but when a communication barrier comes into play, she often relies on the pen and paper technique.

She said sometimes communicating can be frustrating, especially when people act as though they're afraid of deaf people.

"Like if someone on the street asks me a question, I'll just point to my ears and they think, 'Oh my god, she's deaf, I can't communicate,' and they just leave," Harbart said. She said a lot of the time she tries to be patient, and encourages people not to give up when they can't understand.

"Deafness is kind of a hidden disability," said Ed Peltier, president of the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. "There's a lot of myths about deafness," and he hopes that events such as the open house on Thursday will help educate people about the deaf community.

Austine is celebrating its 100th year as an institution, and public relations manager Robyn Weisel decided, instead of holding an event at the school, to do something downtown where there would be more people around.

"Here we are, this little school for the deaf up on a hill. Who's going to come visit us there?" Weisel said. "This is the first time we've said to Brattleboro, come check us out."

Cardboard displays offered information about the sports, clubs, programs, and learning opportunities at Austine. People came in and browsed the artwork that lined the tables and walls, saw a video and looked at photos of the high school trip to France and Italy, and watched as four students acted out "The Three Little Pigs" in sign language, with interpreters speaking out loud what they were saying.

Earlier in the day, the students and staff at Austine worked with area schools that came to visit, including St. Michael's School, Oak Grove School and Hilltop Montessori.

"The more the community understands about deaf kids, the more open they are," Peltier said.

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