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February 3, 2006

By sight and by sound

From: Wilson Daily Times, NC - Feb 3, 2006

By Amber L. Whitley

Daily Times Staff Writer

Sometimes when Stephanie Richards gets excited about something she's teaching, she starts using sign language while she talks. Her students quickly get her attention by saying, "Miss Richards, you're signing again."

But Richards can't help it. Though the fifth-graders she's currently working with as a student-teacher at Vinson-Bynum Elementary School are not hearing-impaired, that is the area she's training in at Barton College.

In a few weeks, she will switch schools and finish her student teaching at the Eastern North Carolina School for the Deaf. The deaf education program at Barton is set up so students have the option of getting an Education of the Hearing Impaired licensure K-12 and an additional area of licensure, such as Elementary Education. For that reason, most students going through the program student-teach both hearing and hearing impaired students.

Richards is from Hamilton, Ohio, and she decided to pursue deaf education after taking an American Sign Language class in high school. She chose Barton because the Education of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program is one of the few undergraduate programs of its kind on the Eastern Seaboard.

However, when Richards got to Barton, she realized sign language was only a small portion of what it takes to work with the hearing-impaired.

Dave Dolman, dean of Barton's School of Education, said students are often disappointed when they find that it is not typical to find a teaching position where American Sign Language is the sole method of communication.

"In deaf education teacher training, we have a public relations job to do with students," said Dolman. "American Sign Language is not totally what deaf education is in 2006. In many ways, it's a more hopeful job now for teachers and more hopeful for parents, too. If you hear more, it's easier for you to learn.

"The fact that sign language is not used as much is not necessarily a bad thing if deaf children are successfully learning through other means, but it's sometimes hard on our majors who had hoped to be signing all the time in the classroom."

Improvements in technology, like better hearing aids and cochlear implants, are making ASL less essential. While hearing aids amplify sound, cochlear implants compensate for damaged parts of the inner ear by electronically finding useful sounds and sending them to the brain.

One challenge of working with the hearing impaired is being able to deal with the technology when it isn't working correctly.

But the biggest challenge in teaching hearing impaired students is that oftentimes the students don't have a language if their parents haven't been signing to them.

"Sign language is not the same as English, and we have to bridge the gap and teach them both," Richards said. "The average deaf adult has a fourth grade education.

"If a hearing person runs across a word they don't know, they can sound it out. Deaf people can't do that. They have to memorize the spelling of words and the sign. You don't say 'the' in sign language or 'am.' Try explaining to someone what 'am' means."

Richards' classmate, Erin Heath, has run into the same challenges. Heath is student-teaching six hearing-impaired students in Pitt County. In a few weeks, she will begin student-teaching students who are not hearing-impaired at Vinson-Bynum.

Heath decided to major in deaf education after transferring to Barton from Pitt Community College in 2003. Even though she didn't know any sign language, the program caught her eye.

Heath travels to six schools each day, and all of her students are oral because they have hearing aids or cochlear implants.

She is an itinerant teacher, which means she pulls the students out of class to work with them individually.

She enjoys working one-on-one with the students and not having to deal with 30 at one time.

Heath added that she is already realizing that if she is in a public school, she will be the expert on the hearing-impaired students even if she's really not. The parents and other teachers will look to her to help develop strategies to help the students. | 265-7868

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