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May 1, 2006

A common language

From: The Columbian - Vancouver,WA,USA - May 1, 2006

By HOWARD BUCK, Columbian staff writer

Hayden Orr bounds off his school bus and heads for the main hallway.

The 8-year-old looks the part of a typical grade school student. Blond bangs frame his brown eyes. He's wearing a navy blue pullover with a windsurfer logo and totes a large, moss-green book bag on his back.

He stops to chat with friends, one animatedly describing an action movie. Then, teachers beckon the students to class, welcoming them with a friendly "Good morning." Soon after, the first bell rings.

Except there's no bell: Instead, math-science teacher Alfred Malone simply flicks the classroom lights off, then on again. And all the gossip, the greetings and the Pledge of Allegiance come in American Sign Language, the children signing deftly and silently with their hands.

Things run a bit differently at the Washington School for the Deaf.

Hayden and six classmates crowd around a large, crescent-shaped table in Malone's room. They're working hard on their times tables. Seated at the center of the desk's arc, Malone can easily face each student, like the dealer at a blackjack table, to make signing that much easier.

To command attention or to stress a point, Malone or a student slaps the desk with an open palm: It's standard procedure for signers.

The seating arrangement, the pace of conversation and a few other quirks speak to the school for the deaf's special nature. As do ASL diagrams that grace wall charts, blended grade levels, and a uniformly low student-to-staff ratio.

It's a deaf institution with a distinct "deaf culture" that fully hearing parents Mel and Brett Orr specifically sought. They moved 1,100 miles from Hollywood, Calif., two years ago, after sifting through options for Hayden, who was born deaf.

"If he was mainstreamed, he would drop from grade-level to lost," Mel Orr says later in their Lincoln neighborhood home, quizzing Hayden on his day. "You might as well just get him in line for Social Security (disability payments)."

She and Brett uprooted movie industry careers and came to Vancouver to get Hayden direct ASL instruction. That, along with the school's small class size and life skills instruction, work to his advantage each day, they figure.

"I'm not sure I'm ready for him to be with an interpreter. They're exhausting," Mel says of mainstream schooling, with the constant use of signing aides. "When you have a deaf kid, you need to funnel information constantly."

Ruling out two California schools for distance and cost, the Orrs chose Vancouver, making due with a modest home and piecemeal jobs.

It's been a good fit, says Mel, who leads a cooking class and joins other activities at the school for the deaf, where family and friends are invited to learn ASL. She says too few hearing parents take advantage, failing to adapt to their child's nonhearing world. Meantime, the whole Orr family, 3-year-old sister Stella included, signs during supper and the evening, so that Hayden can pick up everything.

That includes arguments or Mom's nagging, so that Hayden learns the ropes of life, unvarnished. "If I get frustrated, I sign it now," she explains.

Most of Hayden's school day passes much like that in any building. He sits through math drills, a science lesson, a quick computer exercise, follows closely as an aide reads "aloud" from a children's book. The latter helps students improve English skills, stretching their more limited ASL vocabulary. He plays kickball inside the venerable school gym, goofs around with friends during lunch.

After social studies, he chooses a couple of school library books, scribbles a shopping wish list at a special book fair. On the cover of "The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty," a cartoon boy is picking his nose. "Every time I see that book I think of you," jokes Hayden's language arts teacher.

It's the sort of ribbing Mel thinks Hayden would miss if he were mainstreamed and treated with kid gloves. "In a public school, he couldn't get in trouble, like he (occasionally) does now," she says. "He's not 'smart.' He's just normal, a normal 8-year-old."

It's possible Hayden will attend a mainstream school later, perhaps the nearby Vancouver School of Arts and Academics. But for now, the Orrs are adamant on direct ASL education. If the school for the deaf were to fold, the family would move again to find an appropriate school, Mel says. "For us, it's not a thought. We would go anywhere."

Still relevant?

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Today: The schools for the blind and deaf are a source of self-esteem and social acceptance.