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July 5, 2006

Signers in the outfield, At Fermi High, the boys junior varsity baseball team embraced a teammate's deafness - and learned real sign language for the game

From: Journal Inquirer, CT - Jul 5, 2006

By:Jennifer Hoyt , Journal Inquirer

ENFIELD - Things changed this spring at the Fermi High School Sign Language Club after its founding member, Douglas Giaccone, 15, a student who is deaf, joined the baseball team.

The players wanted to be able to communicate better with Giaccone, then a freshman a star-pitcher for the junior varsity team and the school's only deaf student, so every Thursday an hour of the team's practice was spent learning sign language at the club.

That hour, said Head Coach Mark Dube, meant more to the team than anything they could have practiced on the ballfield.

"All the players rallied around a cause - and that was to be a better teammate," Dube said. "And that meant learning a new language."

The influx of 26 ballplayers vying to learn sign language changed the dynamics of the club.

"I was a little shocked," said Giaccone's interpreter, Sheila Pollins, who helped Giaccone run the club.
But the players worked hard and almost managed to adhere to the most important rule of the club - no talking.

"I'm the biggest cheater," said Giaccone's coach, David Janowski. "I am seriously an idiot with sign language."

Recounting the experience recently at the high school, the players and coaches laughed when they all demonstrated the sign they got to know best. They twirled their pointer fingers around, indicating the phrase:

"How do you sign?"

Team members Geoff Bordeau, Andrew Martin, Chris Rago, and Daniel Spazzarini, said they had played with Giaccone for years, but could never really connect with him because of communication barriers.

By their own admissions, Giaccone's friends still aren't the best signers.

"I really look forward to the day I can really have a conversation with Doug," Rago said.

But it was his friends' efforts that has meant the most to Giaccone, who has been running a sign language club since he was a seventh-grader at John F. Kennedy Middle School after his family moved to Enfield from Wisconsin.

"I really appreciate that everyone has been so willing to learn sign language and to communicate with me," Giaccone said recently through Pollins. "It feels like for the first time people are really interested in learning, and that makes me feel good."

While seeing his players use sign language was unique, Dube said the experience caused an even rarer phenomenon with the team - his varsity players got to know the junior varsity team.

"It was the closest team I've had as a high school coach," said Dube, who has coached varsity baseball at Fermi for five years. "And I know this experience is what caused that."

On the ballfield the hearing impairment Giaccone has had since he was born often works to his advantage, Janowski said, because he's developed an uncanny instinct for the game.

"I've never seen him make a wrong play on the field in a game," Janowski said.

Other players can get distracted by "girls in the stands," Janowski said, but Giaccone has to stay focused "100 percent."

Giaccone's instincts extend into how he reads people, Janowski said.

During one practice the junior varsity team had been acting up, and Giaccone was the only player who perceived how angry Janowski was getting, the coach said.

Giaccone stepped in and motioned for the players to calm down - almost saving them from a punishment, Janowski said.

"He didn't save them from running - he saved them from running more, though," he said.

The team members used sign language during their games, moving beyond the head pats and finger taps common to baseball's version of sign language.

The players laughed slightly deviously when they revealed another advantage of Giaccone's hearing impairment - he could read the opposing coach's lips.

Between those skills and his sense of determination, Giaccone, an honors student at the high school, gained the admiration of his team

"I look up to Doug because he's deaf, but he doesn't care that he's deaf," said team member David Sotolotto. "He still succeeds at everything he does."

Bordeau said his family will appreciate his sign language skills because he can communicate with his partially deaf cousin, Emily Beer, 2, who is learning to sign.

Giaccone's mother, Julie Giaccone, said it has been "phenomenal" to watch the team learn sign language.

She said the players were responding to the accepting attitude of Dube, Janowski, Pollins, the school faculty, and the players' parents.

"If we set the climate that differences are great, in turn the kids just take it and run with it," Julie said. "It really speaks to the integrity and class of this ball team that they unconditionally accepted and respected him."

The high school's baseball season and the sign language club have both ended for the year, but the melding of the two activities will continue come fall, Dube said.

"It was an easy choice to meet Doug halfway," Dube said. "We can talk any time we want to, but we have to learn so we can extend Doug that same right. Meeting people halfway is what you do. It's what everybody should be willing to do."

©Journal Inquirer 2006