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July 27, 2005

Deaf professor brings hope to deaf in Russian culture

From: Danville Advocate, KY - Jul 27, 2005

Staff Writer

LANCASTER - Nina Coyer never thought she'd see herself anywhere near Russia, especially twice in two years. Due to her involvement with Hands of Hope, a charitable social service organization, she knows she will be returning.

The organization is run by part-time Danville residents Tina and Alex Savelyev, who also live in Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian country that became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. The group's mission is to equip and train the large population of deaf and hard-of-hearing to be self-sufficient contributing members of society.

Coyer was born hard-of-hearing, and her condition has worsened with age. She taught at Kentucky School for the Deaf for 12 years before accepting a position as an assistant professor at Eastern Kentucky University eight years ago, teaching American Sign Language, deaf culture and interpreting. She is known as a deaf culture expert and advocate.

Tina Savelyev had interpreted for Coyer and asked her to talk to the teachers in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.

"The population of deaf or hard-of-hearing there is 10 percent compared to 1 percent here," Coyer said.

There is a law against teaching sign language in hard-of-hearing classrooms in Bishkek, and Coyer wanted to help residents understand what signing can do for their students.

Coyer herself didn't learn to sign until she was 19 years old and attending Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the only deaf liberal arts school in the world. She also met her husband, Roger, there.

"Neither one of us had signed before that," Coyer said.

Sign language guarantees understanding

Statistics show that 30 percent of content is understood when reading lips, and 70 percent is "a guessing game." With sign language, 100 percent of the content is understood.

In the Bishkek hard-of-hearing school, a portion of the class is taught with teachers hiding their mouths behind a mask so that children may not read their lips.

"They are not trying to be mean. I understand that they are trying to get the kids to focus on hearing. Their hearts are in the right place, but I asked them 'If you can teach a child 100 percent compared to 30 percent, which would you chose?'" Coyer said.

But getting the area to "hear her out" didn't happen overnight.

Coyer made her first trip to Kyrgyzstan last year and spoke with the director of Special School 21 for Hard-of-Hearing and Late-Deafened Children, where teaching sign language is outlawed.

"My first visit I only worked on building trust with the director," Coyer said, explaining that the Kyrgyzstani culture is very protective of its ways. The teachers eventually agreed to hear Coyer's presentation in June of this year, but it wasn't at all what she expected.

Coyer said she planned on speaking for 15 minutes about her background, then would go on to teaching techniques.

"But they were so shocked that I was almost deaf and had a degree and taught, so I spent two hours answering questions and having conversations about how I got where I am," Coyer said. She was even asked if she was "given" her degree. This element of her visit really underlined what she knew about their culture: they felt the deaf and hard-of-hearing were invalids, could not hold jobs and certainly could not go to college.

"What I have achieved in life affected all of the teachers deeply, and it was a very emotional talk," Coyer said.

Some participants were in tears

Some of the participants were in tears during the discussion, realizing that the children of the area had been held back for so many years due to the ideology that is 50-75 years behind.

Until she went to Gallaudet, Coyer never thought she would be able to be an achiever. The oral approach to teaching hard-of-hearing children was strictly followed until 1971, Coyer said.

"Then I got to the university and I saw students who were going to be doctors and lawyers, anything they wanted to be," Coyer said.

Coyer's husband was along for the trip to Russia as well. He is retired from KSD after 29 years of teaching physical education and coaching football, basketball, track and cross country.

"Roger spoke to them some, and they just couldn't believe that the deaf played sports," Nina Coyer said.

Soon Roger Coyer was teaching the children football.

"The change of attitude won't happen overnight, it may take 20 years," Coyer said.

Next on the Savelyevs' list is to circulate a petition, Coyer said, in hopes of getting the government to observe the difference signing makes in the classroom, allowing the technique to be taught to the hard-of-hearing.

"Nina brought a peer component to that educational community. While we do have the respect of those administrators and teachers, we are not 'one of them.' As an educator, Nina is one of them and that makes a world of difference. Being deaf herself, she also represents the students they teach here. What an awesome combination to put before them in a conference setting," said Tina Savelyev.

"I told the teachers that they have to have hope for those children. They have to believe, or the children won't believe in themselves. If I can do it, then they can, too," Coyer said.

Copyright The Advocate-Messenger 2005