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April 20, 2007

Deaf instructor teaches the culture of sign language

From: Gary Post Tribune - Gary,IN,USA - Apr 20, 2007

By Carrie Napoleon Post-Tribune correspondent

CROWN POINT -- Steve Miller smiled as he stood before a small group of students at the South Lake County Resource Center in Crown Point, waiting patiently for a response to his question.

The classroom was quiet, but Miller had his answer. His smile broadened, and he gave his class a thumbs up. Yet no words were exchanged.

The students' response came via the same method he posed his query -- American Sign Language.

The spoken word is discouraged in ASL classes offered by Deaf Services Inc. of Merrillville.

Miller, 82, co-founded the group 29 years ago and still teaches two or three nights a week.

The Crown Point class was the first sponsored by Deaf Services in South Lake County.

"If everyone knew how to sign, the world would be a better place," Miller said through his interpreter, Debbie Pampalone.

Pampalone is a staff interpreter for Deaf Services, and is Miller's daughter.

Miller, who lost his hearing at age 5 due to spinal meningitis, explained that his inability to hear is not a problem.

"The problem is communication," he signed.

Deaf Services offers sign-language classes to help bridge that communication gap.

Pampalone said ASL is considered a language in and of itself. Some local high schools, such as Munster and Highland, offer ASL in their language curriculums.

She said it is important for people to understand ASL is not just spelling out words and sentences with fingers.

It is a living language based on gestures and finger-spelling that incorporates local and regional "slang" into its vocabulary.

There also is a culture unique to the deaf community.

Having Miller teach the class opens a window to that community.

"He teaches not only language, he exposes people to deaf culture," Pampalone said.

Foster parent Hestina Monroe was taking the class so she could learn to communicate with a deaf youngster recently placed in her home.

Although she has been at it just a short time, Monroe said the lines of communication already have improved.

The Gary resident said the two-hour classes help with learning ASL.

"The more you do it, the better you get," she said.

Patty Cowser of Crown Point knows that firsthand. This is her second time through the course.

Repetition, especially when you don't have someone to sign with every day, is important to learning.

"It's a foreign language," she said.

Cowser, a paraprofessional at Merrillville Intermediate School, said learning ASL helps her communicate better with the students.

© 2007 Sun-Times News Group