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Bridging gap between families, deaf

George de Man
Calhoun Times (Georgia)

Terry Hampton was at his wits' end.

His wife, Nikki, was taking a few hours off one night several years ago, when the Fairmount father found himself looking after their deaf son, Coulter, then 2 years old.

“We were having a hard, hard time communicating that night,” says Hampton, who teaches elementary music at Fairmount Elementary School.

Coulter wanted a snack. His father studied his gestures and tried to think of what the boy was trying to tell him. He resorted to trial and error - crackers? fruit? soda? - but Coulter’s anger and frustration, and Hampton’s own, started to build.

Finally they ransacked the cupboard together until the object was found: a fig bar.

“Boy, that night I said to myself, ‘I am not doing this,’” he remembers. “‘I’m not going to let my son grow up and me not be able to communicate with him. I’m not going to be one of those parents that can’t talk to my deaf child.’”

Hampton kept his promise. Since the summer of 2002, he and Nikki have attended the American Sign Language Immersion Training Program at Floyd College, a three-semester, 26-hour program taught two evenings a week at Heritage Hall. “What we wanted was to learn all those things you need to do with hearing children, (things) we couldn’t do because our son spoke a different language,” says Nikki, who like Terry, first acquired ASL through a basic sign language class offered at Coulter’s deaf preschool.

“As far as our family is helped, this program is a resource that a lot of parents of deaf children don’t have,” she said.

A need to communicate

Started in 1995, the program at Floyd is the brainchild of Wendell Barnes, program director and an associate professor of interpreter education at the college.

Part of the reason the program was proposed was the school’s proximity to the Georgia School for the Deaf in Cave Spring, Barnes says.

“There were and are a lot of families here (in Rome and Floyd County) who have persons who are deaf and already have acquired ASL,” he said. As a result, the program more closely resembles the second year of most sign language programs, in that applicants are required to pass the Sign Communication Proficiency Interview test.

Some 22 students have completed the program so far. Even with a background, however, no one entering the program can claim to be an expert, Hampton observes.

“The more I learn (about ASL) the more I see there is to learn,” says Terry. “If I get to feeling the least bit cocky, all I have to do to get the least bit humble is to go up to a deaf person and start a conversation because I can get lost in a heartbeat.”

Although a form of manual sign language already was in widespread use among Native Americans before the arrival of Europeans, deaf instruction in America can be traced directly to the efforts of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a Con-gregational minister who created the nation’s first school for the deaf in Connecticut, in 1817.

That was almost 30 years before the founding of Georgia School for the Deaf in 1846.

The National Center for Health Statistics estimates that 20 million people, or 8.6 percent of the U.S. population, have hearing problems.

Of those, the Gallaudet Research Institute estimates there are more than 550,000 individuals who are unable to hear and understand speech.

Signing vs. signing

In part because much of its evolution has been in the hands of the deaf population, ASL has enormous advantages over Pidgin Signed English, its more cumbersome second cousin, explains Mike Burton, a part-time instructor of ASL’s linguistic and grammatical principles for the Floyd program.

“American Sign Language is a visual language that’s de-veloped over hundreds of years because it works,” said Bur-ton, who taught at Georgia School for the Deaf from 1970 to 1985.

Unlike Pidgin, which mimics the word-for-word sentence structure of spoken English, ASL conveys its information through image concepts, using facial cues and body move-ment as well as gestures.

Indeed, less than 40 percent of linguistic information in ASL is on the hands, Burton says.

Visual languages also have a different structure than audi-tory languages. In ASL, the direct object as a rule comes first in the sentence. For example, “The man rides the horse” would sign the horse before the riding man is signed.

“You can’t put a man in space out there riding nothing,” says Burton.

Since August 2002, Tracie Barrow has commuted to Rome twice a week from Douglasville to attend the course.

“I look forward to going to class every week,” she said. “I’d encourage anybody who wants to learn (ASL) to give it a shot. It’s very well worth it.”

Barrow, 27, has been fascinated with sign language since high school, when she learned the finger spelling of the al-phabet by heart. She later became skilled at religious and hymnal signing at her church.

“I’d been praying,” she said. “I’d tried business, childcare and other career paths, and none of it felt right. God led me to this and I know it was all Him, because everything fell into place.”

A growing need

On Tuesday evenings, Barrow and Terry Hampton attend the vocabulary development course, taught via closed circuit teleconferencing by Dinah Estes, professor of Deaf Education at Columbus State University. (Floyd College is a member of the Georgia Statewide Academic and Medical System interac-tive network).

Estes, who is deaf, signals that it’s time for a pop quiz. This week’s topic is medical terminology. Onscreen, Estes draws her right fist toward her chest, shielded from behind by her left palm.

Suddenly she grimaces and claps the fist against the cupped hand: “heart attack.”

Pens and pencils scribble; others hover before venturing an answer.

Next term: with her right index finger, Estes circles the thumb of her left hand. She repeats the sign; but already Hampton has the answer: “surgery.”

There are some 40 words to go. When they are finished, the students will fax their answer sheets to Columbus for grading.

Hampton admits the mass of information can be challenging. He’s a teacher, not a doctor, after all; and he’s taking the course as a father.

“You never know when this will come in handy,” he comments.

Many of the students in the ASL program, such as Barrow, eventually intend to become nationally certified interpreters. Barnes notes that graduates of the program receive a certificate of completion, which is a first step toward that goal.

“The need for interpreters is increasing every day,” said Barnes. “There’s no doubt that there need to be interpreter training programs continuing everywhere.

“I think we’ve met a lot of needs for a lot of people, not only the students that want to become interpreters but the students in schools who need interpreters. That’s why we’re here.”

For more information about the American Sign Language Immersion Training Program for Interpreters at Floyd College, contact Wendell Barnes at 295-6307. Fee: $153 per course.


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