Students learn through silence
Monday, August 30, 2004
Emma Bixler, 15, hears and speaks just fine but prefers the quiet world of the Washington School for the Deaf.
The Seattle resident was one of 26 students enrolled in last week's High School Total Immersion Sign Language program at the school. Now in its ninth year, the program offers hearing people the chance to experience life as a deaf or hard-of-hearing person.
During the week, they live at the school in Vancouver and only communicate as a deaf person would: through sign language or writing notes.
"It's like a silent workshop," said coordinator Nikki Ekle. That's a challenge at first, both because they can't talk and because they have to tune out sound. The students also experience the frustrations deaf people have while they navigate the hearing world. Ekle said it made them more understanding.
Based on the almost complete lack of sound, a visit to a classroom gives the impression that students are waiting around for the instruction to start. On closer inspection, it's clear there was a lot happening as students communicated without voices. Their hands moved rapidly through the air, punctuated by facial expressions.
The lessons extended beyond the campus there were trips to Starbucks, a mall and an aquatic center. Participants had to interact with baristas and clerks without talking.
"It's hard for them to turn their voices off," Ekle said.
For Bixler, it was a chance to study a new language without being impeded by her dyslexia. Dyslexia makes reading the written word difficult. When she was deciding which language to study, the thought of memorizing more words was daunting, Bixler said.
"This is a perfect language for me," she said. "It works with how I think better: visually and kinesthetically." After attending the program last summer, Bixler struggled with explaining the concepts to her parents with words. She found her hands flying up to illustrate. "I kept stalling with words," Bixler said. "I express myself better with sign."
One of the students, Svetlana Altman, was learning new ways to express herself. Her family recently moved to Vancouver from Russia. Altman didn't learn much language at all in her home country and communicated with only a handful of gestures.
"It was nothing; she was frozen," Ekle said. By the end of the week, Altman had picked up some signs and was looking forward to starting classes at the school in September. Rachel Dunn, 15, said she learned a lot from Altman. Dunn's hearing is impaired; she's been told she could lose all her hearing by the time she's 30 years old. She'll be a classmate of Altman at the school. Realizing other people have a greater level of impairment made her hopeful about her own potential. "It makes me feel I'm not the only one," she said.
Kelly Adams covers social issues and religion for The Columbian. Contact her at 360-759-8016 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Did you know?
* American Sign Language is becoming more popular as a language elective at schools across the country.
* Firefighters, police officers and employees of government agencies have participated in the total immersion program in the past to improve their communications skills on the job.
* American Sign Language is a visual language and is learned through hand motions.
Copyright © 2004 by The Columbian Publishing Co.
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