By Nancy Gutierrez
"My hands are my voice, my eyes are my ears;" this line, taken from Jennie Coyne's poem on deafness, describes the reality of living without sound.
But being deaf is more than living without sound. For many young deaf people, being deaf means living without communication with friends, teachers even family. A day in the life of a deaf teen living in a world dominated by the spoken word can be filled with alienation, confusion and frustration.
For Hilda Vasquez, a junior at Exeter Union High School, being the only deaf student in a school was something she had never experienced. When she was a sophomore, Hilda transferred to EUHS from a school for the deaf in Fremont, California -- a school she had attended since she was very young. Hilda and her family live in Exeter, but her family made the decision to enroll her in the Fremont school at the start of her education. Hilda would board a bus with other Valley deaf children, to Fremont on Sunday, stay at the school until Friday when she would board a bus for home. At Fremont, Hilda learned American Sign Language (ASL) and conversed daily with friends and teachers who all used the same language.
Hilda said for personal reasons her parents decided to take her out of the school and enroll her in the local high school, EUHS. The transition was not smooth and Hilda's start at EUHS was rough. Hilda said she missed a lot of school and was frustrated when she would attend.
"It's hard communicating with hearing people," she signed. "In Fremont we could just sign to each other. Here I'm the only deaf student, so I'm just here. At break I'm with my sister and my cousin. But I can't really communicate with them, so I just kind of look around."
Hilda does a lot of writing with her hearing friends but admits that she wished more people would take the time to learn. The one person Hilda can easily communicate with is her translator Heather Lemon. Lemon attends class with Hilda and translates class lectures for her.
In Bridget Cook's third period class students stared up at the overhead projector while Cook lectured about a book they were about to read. Hilda's gaze would move from the projector to Lemon's active hands. Lemon signed the questions other students asked and the answers Cook gave. When the class read out loud Hilda read along with Lemon's guidance at what line the class had reached.
"It was hard to learn how to read," Hilda signed. "I don't understand words. Vocabulary in class is hard especially in science. A lot of those words don't have signs."
So Hilda depends on the explanations from Lemon to learn in class. But there are obstacles there too. If Lemon is sick there is no one there to tell her what is being said in class.
"When Heather's gone I just try to watch but it's frustrating, once I just tried to leave," Hilda signed. "One day when Heather was sick someone in my science class tried to finger-spell everything the teacher was saying. It didn't really work."
Then there is the problem with homework. Hilda can read her work but if she needs help or doesn't understand something she has no one to ask. Hilda's sister is the only family member who knows some ASL. Her parents speak mostly Spanish.
"It's hard to communicate with my family," she signed. "We do a lot of acting, kind of like charades, to get our point across."
Claudia Garcia is an ASL teacher at Lindsay's Healthy Start. She teaches sign language to non-English speaking parents and said the frustration of not understanding your child's needs is magnified with Spanish speakers.
"The situation is complicated as it is," she said. "But explaining things to deaf or hard of hearing children is especially difficult if you don't speak English."
Garcia speaks English, Spanish and can sign. She said even she has a hard time providing explanations to her son who is hard of hearing.
"Their daily life is complicated," she said. "Something I've noticed is that the deaf students say they get punished more because they're deaf. The problem is the parents can't explain to them what it was they did wrong or why they got in trouble."
Garcia works with families through the First 5 Tulare County program and the children are usually elementary school aged. She said explaining cultural norms like religion and even familial relationships, to young deaf children is hard. If a deaf or hard of hearing child has no one to explain that to them in sign language they don't completely learn what those things are.
Hilda attended a school for the deaf and had formal education in ASL. But in her transfer to EUHS Hilda became disinterested in school. Teacher Greg Simpson said that last year he started to noticed a change in Hilda's attitude toward school.
"There was a real turnaround," Simpson said. "Her relationship with Ms. Lemon and having nurturing teachers I think has helped with the transition."
Hilda said Lemon had a lot to do with the change as well as teachers like Jason Welch who take the time to understand her circumstance.
"Heather explains what the teacher says and makes things clear. She helped me improve," Hilda signed. "Mr. Welch will ask Heather the sign for something then runs over to show me and I get to make fun of him when he does it wrong."
With help from Lemon, Welch and other teachers Hilda improved to the point that she was presented with a Pathway Award from the EUHS district board members. In her ag class Hilda participated in a speech exercise. While other students memorized and recited the FFA creed, Hilda memorized and signed the creed.
Though Hilda is improving her situation has not gotten any easier. She still can only communicate clearly with her translator and she still does not receive help with homework from her family. In addition to that Hilda is limited on where she can go. Lemon said Hilda is taken from home to school and back again and that her ventures outdoors are limited.
But those hurdles are no longer going to stop Hilda. She said she will do whatever she can to graduate and go to college.
"I'd like to become a nurse. I think they make a lot of money," she signed.
In 1999 the National Institute of Health estimated that 28 million Americans were deaf or hard of hearing. Schools for the deaf are not located in every city or even every county. Parents of deaf children throughout the San Joaquin Valley have two choices for their child's education. They must decide to either send their child to Fremont's School for the Deaf, the closest institution to the Valley, or send their child to the local high school where they will most likely be the only student using sign language and where they will be put into resource classes for students with moderate learning disabilities. Most deaf students are not learning disabled they are hearing disabled. If they are unable to learn it is because their hearing educators are unable to communicate in the only language deaf students know.