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May 20, 2007

Deaf student leaves her imprint on West grads

From: Knoxville News Sentinel - Knoxville,TN,USA - May 20, 2007

May 20, 2007

Nori Rittenhouse is one of those people to whom you can't help but pay attention.
She has perfect Pantene curls, a welcoming smile and shows no timidity in hugging a stranger.

Oh, and she is deaf. But that last detail is just a formality if you ask her. Rittenhouse has never let that minor inconvenience get in her way.

On Saturday, Rittenhouse gave a senior speech during graduation ceremonies for West High School at the Knoxville Civic Coliseum - a first for the high school and possibly for Knox County Schools.

But it was not an honor given to Rittenhouse because of her disability. She tried out for the slot just as dozens of seniors did, submitting an essay in English class and then presenting it before judges who chose the top three.

Rittenhouse would never accept a handout, and those who know her would say she doesn't need one anyway.

Case manager Patsy Lowe is not surprised that Rittenhouse would take on such a task.

Rittenhouse signed the speech while lead interpreter Ruby Warner voiced her words.

"She is outgoing, enthusiastic and she tries anything new. She is a very brave person," Lowe said. "She does not limit herself in any way."

Rittenhouse chose to attend a "hearing school" instead of Tennessee School for the Deaf because she wanted the challenge.

After all, it has been the challenges she faced in life that made her stronger.

Rittenhouse was born in Honduras, adopted by an American family and started school for the first time in the United States at age 8. She was illiterate.

Her speech Saturday was about overcoming challenges.

At first, she thought students at West would underestimate or ignore her, but that fear only motivated her to work harder, she said.

Rittenhouse played basketball, ran track, was in advanced drama, studied Spanish and mentored freshman, both hearing and nonhearing.

"Deaf people can work hard," Rittenhouse said. "We're not weak. We're strong."

And in many ways, Rittenhouse is like any other graduating senior. She's excited for the freedom of college - she will attend National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, N.Y., - considering a career in photography and acting and nervous about standing before the entire student body.

By the end of her speech Saturday, it was obvious she has left an impression on her fellow graduates in her time at West.

Instead of clapping for her, they raised their hands, fingers spread wide, and they waved them - an ovation in sign language.

"Sometimes people's attitudes are our obstacles," Rittenhouse said. "(But) they don't have to stop you. We have to make those obstacles our footstools."

Millete Birhanemaskel may be reached at 865 342-6268.

Copyright 2007, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.