:: The hearing barrier – 05/01/2007 – MiamiHerald.com ::

EDUCATION

The hearing barrier

A free program has helped families to communicate with deaf children

Tue, May 1, 2007
BY LAURA MORALES
llmorales@MiamiHerald.com

Even without an obvious communication barrier, parents and children can sometimes feel as if they are speaking different languages.

Throw in a physiological disability and a transcontinental move and you’ve got the complex obstacle course that makes communication difficult for the Vera family of El Portal.

Until recently, parents Jorge Vera and Silvia Patino spoke only Spanish. Three of their children speak English and varying levels of Spanish.

But none of this equipped them to communicate well with Jorge Jr., 12, who was almost completely deaf at birth, and who began studying American Sign Language in school shortly after their arrival from Uruguay.

That is, until one of Jorge Jr.’s teachers introduced the Veras to the Shared Reading Project, a free but financially struggling program funded by Miami-Dade County Public Schools and managed by Miami’s Deaf Services Bureau.

The program helps families of hearing-impaired children learn basic sign language by signing popular children’s books. Tutors visit families for weekly sessions, teaching relatives the signs necessary for books such as The Horrible Big Black Bug and The Sombrero of Luis Lucero.

While in Uruguay, Jorge and his parents used a sign language unique to the country. But the younger Jorge, who can understand written English and a bit of Spanish, doesn’t remember much of it.

So for years, they struggled with the simplest of messages — what time Jorge Jr. had to return home from playing — and with complicated life lessons. Everything had to go through their 14 year-old daughter Jessica — at the time the only family member fluent in English, Spanish and American Sign Language.

”Sometimes he is so innocent,” Patino said of her son. She recalled a time when a boy asked Jorge to ”lend” him his bicycle, then disappeared with it.

”We had to go to the kid’s house to get his bike back,” said Patino.

NEW LEVEL

But with the lessons, they have been able to communicate on an entirely different level. ”Now I can talk to him about why this one or that one is not a real friend,” she said.

They can ask each other questions, and get answers. When a group of boys came knocking recently, Jorge Jr. ran into a room, emerging with some video games. ”Where are you going?” Jorge Sr. asked with his fingers.

”To show my friends these video games,” the boy waggled back, nodding when his father signed ”come back soon.” Jorge Jr. was back a few minutes later, upset. ”They’re all broken!” he signed, tapping the games against his head.

The school district and Deaf Services Bureau introduced Miami-Dade to the program, founded at Washington, D.C.’s Gallaudet University, last year.

Some 92 percent of deaf children nationally are born into all-hearing families and most of these children’s parents do not know American Sign Language, said University of Florida ASL teacher Michael Tuccelli.

In Miami-Dade schools, 461 students are enrolled in programs for the deaf or hearing impaired, said Deborah Finley, Exceptional Student Education supervisor for the school district. The Shared Reading Project, though, only has funding — $25,000 this year — to reach 22 families.

Finley said that in families that haven’t learned sign language, it’s hard for the children to convey their wants and needs to their parents.

”It causes communication gaps, gaps that can be very negative,” she said.

For example, William Nguyen, 6, used to get angry when his parents couldn’t understand what he tried to say through gestures. Though he is only 50 percent deaf, the Gulfstream Elementary student cannot speak, his mom Sopa Nguyen said.

PROGRAM IN PRACTICE

”He would isolate himself,” Nguyen, of South Miami-Dade, added. “But the tutoring has helped him a lot. He is a happier child.”

JohnPaul Jebian, a Shared Reading tutor who teaches sign language to deaf and hearing students at G. Holmes Braddock Senior High and Miami Dade College, said that, at first, the families are nervous. “But by the second visit they get more comfortable, and then they get excited about it.”

Families can keep their lessons fresh between sessions by doing ”homework,” or signing the stories along with a videotaped narrator.

Through her family’s experience, Jessica Vera has developed a taste for helping people improve their communication — and lives.

”I like doing sign language,” she said in Spanish. “I’m going to study be a Spanish-English-American Sign Language interpreter when I go to college.”

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