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May 1, 2006

For once, being one in a crowd

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

Monday, May 1, 2006
By MARGARET ELLIS, Columbian staff writer

Treca Young had been losing her sight for years by the time those around her realized she was going blind.

Her eyesight didn't change dramatically when she was diagnosed in sixth grade, but the way she was treated by her teachers and classmates did.

"They didn't know what to do with me," said Young, who started seventh grade at the Washington State School for the Blind and graduated in 1980. "I was sat in a corner."

Many public schools give disabled children the resources and the welcoming environment they need to thrive. But some students are better able to explore their potential and build confidence when they're surrounded by children and adults like them, say advocates for the schools for the blind and deaf.

A study written at the request of the state Legislature implies the school for the blind and the Washington School for the Deaf are expensive and inefficient. Consequently, some legislators suggested blind and deaf children are better off in mainstream classrooms. But alumni and students of the state schools defend their academic worth and say the schools provide social opportunities that can't be replaced in a public school.

For the past seven years, Young has been a residential life counselor at the school for the blind. She works in the "cottages" where students live on campus, teaching skills such as cooking and doing laundry.

Presiding over a meal of sloppy Joes prepared by the boys living in her cottage one evening recently, Young said the school gives them a chance to feel like one in a crowd, not disabled or different. Before they come here, she said, "They've always been the blind child."

Sighted parents often don't know how to teach their blind children how to make a bed, keep track of money or squeeze out just enough toothpaste. It doesn't occur to some parents to try, and some blind children grow up without learning to do these things for themselves, say officials at the school for the blind.

One parent, Steve Rainey, wrote a letter to the Legislature supporting the school for the blind. He said that when his blind daughter was in public school, her teachers didn't have the expertise and weren't able to devote the time to allow her to complete her school work or teach her how to be independent. She enrolled at the school for the blind after fourth grade, and went on to college.

In public school, Elizabeth Rainey wasn't taught how to get around on her own. Instead, students were assigned to escort her to and from class.

"These proctors were offered an incentive a pizza party at the end of the year. When Elizabeth learned this, she was devastated, and this has affected her self-esteem to this day," Rainey wrote.

Deafness: a culture

Deafness can separate deaf from the hearing world like travelers in a foreign country.

That's why places like the Washington School for the Deaf are important not just for what they offer students, but for their role in the deaf community as a whole, say school advocates.

"I don't think anybody has a right to destroy a culture, and that's what they'd be doing if they shut this down," said Nancy Sinkovitz, residential program supervisor at the school for the deaf.

Sinkovitz can hear, but she thinks of herself as "part deaf." She grew up playing with deaf children in the old dormitories at the school. Her parents and daughter graduated from the school and came back to supervise students living at the school. Sinkovitz's sister and son-in-law work there, too. Sinkovitz's parents, Harold and Marjorie Stickle, retired in 1982.

"When dad was a student he would come in September and wouldn't come home until June. He didn't even go home for Thanksgiving and Christmas," said Sinkovitz. Harold Stickle was a deaf child with hearing parents. "He had no communication at home, so it was difficult and he felt very isolated," Sinkovitz said. "I remember him telling me he used to walk miles and miles and miles to get to the home of another deaf friend."

Not all students prefer the school to home. Many have some hearing and do speak. Speech therapy and cochlear implants allow some children to hear and speak who wouldn't have been able to 50 years ago. Others have families who have learned to sign and can communicate that way.

However, many teens who live on campus said their weekends at home are boring compared with weekdays at school.

"At home, I'm the only deaf person," said Alex Garcia, 18, through an interpreter. "When I'm here, I can communicate."

Garcia's family lives in the Woodland area and works on farms there. During the week, he lives at the school for the deaf. Even with hearing aids in both ears, he relies on sign language to communicate. Growing up in Guatemala, he didn't have access to hearing aids.

When Garcia came to the school six years ago, "he had no language," Sinkovitz said.

Deaf culture, and the ability to communicate with sign language, is also a big deal to Sinkovitz's son-in-law, Brian Stromberg. Even though he can hear well enough to have a conversation in spoken English, he prefers signing.

He's pleased his 10-month-old daughter is hard of hearing.

"She's like us," he said. Genetic tests show the son he and his wife, Toni, are expecting will be deaf. "If I had a hearing child, I wouldn't object," he said. "It's nice to have the bonus, though."

Stromberg says communicating with speech is an exercise in frustration, though it was his only mode of communication until he was a teenager. Stromberg learned sign language when he came to the school for the deaf. He graduated in 1991.

"Even when I sat in the front row in regular education classes I failed," he said. He was relegated to special education classrooms and had trouble making friends. Stromberg said hearing people get frustrated when he asks them to repeat themselves. Conversations are strained. Misunderstandings led to problems and hindered promotion at other jobs. Now he works in the maintenance department of the school for the deaf.

Sign language opened up a new world of social interaction for him, Stromberg said.

"When I look at what I have here, I know I can be a part of the community," he said.

Louis Braille invented the first system allowing blind people to read when he was 15 years old. He was blinded in an accident at 3.

Braille takes up more space than print. "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" is 10 volumes in Braille. Books in Braille are printed and stored at the Instructional Resource Center at the Washington State School for the Blind. One algebra textbook in the collection is 53 volumes.

American Sign Language is a separate language from English. It has its own rules for grammar, punctuation and sentence order. It also allows for regional usage and jargon. While English speakers signal a question with a particular tone of voice, ASL users do so by raising the eyebrows and widening the eyes.

Sign language isn't universal. British Sign Language is different from ASL. Roman Deneychuk, 17, knew only Russian Sign Language when he enrolled at the Washington School for the Deaf. He moved to Kent, near Seattle, from Lychk, Ukraine, and lives at the school during the week.

The above includes information from the National Institutes on Deafness and other Hearing Disorders and the American Foundation for the Blind.

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