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A LEAP Ahead for Hearing-Impaired Students

One of the challenges teenagers who are deaf and hard of hearing frequently face is connecting and interacting with other teens with hearing loss. If not addressed, that challenge can lead to isolation and a lack of self-confidence. A new program of The Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (AG Bell) called LEAP (Leadership Experiences and Adventure Program), established with the support of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation, helps high school students who use Listening and Spoken Language connect virtually with peers just like them. The program is led by adults who are deaf and are achieving their potential. LEAP helps teens become more self-aware while acquiring capacity in leadership, self-advocacy, technology, work and life skills. Students who participate in LEAP learn more about themselves and their personal strengths and are excited to see how they can use their strengths to develop and achieve their future goals.

AG Bell has hosted three LEAP sessions so far this year in May, July, and September. To date, 87 students registered for LEAP from 21 different states and 6 different countries. Each session offered 5 ½ hours of engaging and informative interaction led by Catharine McNally, AG Bell’s past president, as well as six additional facilitators who are graduates of the long-standing LOFT (Leadership Opportunities for Teens) program, which strengthens leadership potential in students with hearing loss. Participants worked with facilitators in small group sessions where they connected with each other on a more personal level, and more easily engaged in self-exploration and discussion.

Guest speaker Ceil Weatherman, a Gallup-Certified Strengths Coach, used the students’
“homework” of completing the Clifton Strengths Assessment to highlight the strengths of each student and the value that each brings to social, education and work environments. LEAP teens learned that people in their “strength zones” experience positive energy, are more likely to achieve their goals, are more confident, perform better at work, experience less stress and have more positive moments. Keeping their strengths in mind, the teens explored how their personal strengths can help them use technology more effectively, advocate more efficiently and plan for the future.

At the end of the two-day, virtual session, students were asked to share what they learned. Here is what a few of the students shared:

 “I learned when a person uses his Clifton Strengths, he is more successful at work and/or school.” (Anonymous)

 “One thing I plan to do differently now that I have done LEAP is advocate for myself more.” (Rachel, age 16)

 “[The Mentors] were amazing and showed us how we can be successful in the future.” (Anonymous)

 “I just wanted to thank AG Bell for choosing me for this LEAP program because it made me a better person and gave me a confidence to embrace my hearing loss.” (Leah, age 17)

“I learned that I am not alone in my hearing loss journey and that to get the best experiences I apply my values and strengths in everything I do in life.” (Anonymous)

“How to advocate for myself.” (Paul, age 17)

“I plan to use my hearing equipment in different and more creative ways.” (Anonymous)

“Use our strengths to discover our interests.” (Kiana, age 15)

“[I’m] inspired to pursue my future career by using my strengths.” (Nathan, age 15)

Through the generosity of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation and other supporters, LEAP is offered free of charge to high school students. Six sessions will be scheduled throughout 2022, offered every other month. AG Bell offers placement of up to 50 students per session with a goal of 350 total participants. For more information and to apply to attend LEAP, please visit www.AGBellLEAP.com or email us at LEAP@agbell.org.


Julie Schulte is the Teen Programs Coordinator for the AG Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

‘Hearing But Deaf All the Same’

This essay originally appeared in The Washington Post.

On the deafness scale of mild, moderate, severe or profound, I am profoundly deaf. With the help of cochlear implants, I am able to “hear” and speak. The devices are complicated to explain, but basically, external sound processors, worn behind the ears, send a digital signal to the implants, which convert the signal to electric impulses that stimulate the hearing nerve and provide sound signals to the brain. The implants allow me to attend my middle school classes with few accommodations, but I’m still quite different from people who hear naturally. When my implant processors are turned off, I don’t hear anything.

I regard myself as a deaf person, and I am proud to be among those who live with deafness, yet I often feel rejected by some of these same people. My use of cochlear implants and lack of reliance on American Sign Language (I use it but am not fluent — I primarily speak) are treated like a betrayal by many in the Deaf — capital-D — community. In the view of many who embrace Deaf culture, a movement that began in the 1970s, those who are integrated into the hearing world through technology, such as hearing aids or cochlear implants, myself included, are regarded as “not Deaf enough” to be a part of the community.

People deaf from birth or through illness or injury already face discrimination. I wish we didn’t practice exclusion among ourselves. But it happens, and it’s destructive.

Those in the Deaf community tend to think of deafness as a defining factor of who they are and how they live. Many have never heard anything and have never communicated by speaking. That is a different experience from mine, but, in the end, none of us can hear without assistance. I think much of the tension between the Deaf and the deaf stems from this inability to completely experience each other’s lives.

Deaf child holding a toy and pointingMany Deaf people, and hearing people, think of cochlear implants as a “solution” to deafness. It isn’t. The technology simply helps me live with my deafness in a certain way. My parents decided to get cochlear implants for me when I was a year old because they felt that I would have an easier life with them. Whether this is true or not I’ll never know. But in making the decision, my parents debated many pros and cons of cochlear implants. It is a debate that tens of thousands of parents have had since the implants became a practical option in the 1980s.

My parents felt that the implants would give me more opportunities, but they worried that my having them would close off my access to a Deaf identity. They worried I would be rebuffed by Deaf people who did not understand what it’s like to live with cochlear implants.

I’m sorry to say that my parents were right. They hired a Deaf ASL teacher to work with me when I was only a few months old, but she stopped coming after she found out that I would be getting cochlear implants. When I was a toddler, I was unwelcome in an ASL playgroup. My parents did eventually find a Deaf ASL teacher who respected my family’s choice. I’ve dealt with hearing people not understanding my deafness — staring at the equipment, asking insensitive questions, congratulating me on “passing” in the hearing world — and I’ve dealt with Deaf people denying it. I’m glad to be part of my school community, acting in plays, singing (and signing) in the chorus and studying spoken French, and I’m grateful for all that I can access because of my cochlear implants. Still, I avoid swimming with hearing friends and attending sleepovers because I need to take my implant processors off in water and for sleeping.

white crumpled paper

I recently found a crumpled piece of paper I wrote on four years ago, when I was 10. It read: “There is a color between yellow and green that no one can agree on: I think of cochlear implants — hearing but deaf all the same.” I will always feel separated from the hearing world in important ways; I have also had to live with feeling excluded by a community that might have provided assurance that I wasn’t alone, that others felt the same way.

I hope that in the future, deaf children — regardless of whether they wear technology, speak or sign — will grow up with a sense of being accepted. To achieve that, we in the deaf world need to see each other for our similarities, accept that we may never agree on this issue, and start working together.

Juliet is a ninth grade student in Massachusetts, and a former student at JSF grantee partner Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech. She enjoys drawing, acting and playing Ultimate Frisbee.

Unwrapping the Gift of Potential at Clarke

The spirit of the season filled the classrooms on a recent day at Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech in Jacksonville, Florida.

Clarke Schools LogoIn one class, a teacher led her energetic preschoolers in an assignment that involved decorating a Christmas tree. Later that morning, a student practiced her language skills by reading her letter to Santa aloud to a group of visitors. Schoolwide, classes were preparing for an upcoming holiday concert.

Other than the hearing aids and cochlear implants worn by the children, the scene was no different than in any other preschool anywhere.

Administrators at Clarke know that visitors are sometimes surprised when they visit one of their campuses for the first time. In a post for Giving Matters earlier this year, Chief Development Officer Lillian Rountree challenged anyone new to Clarke to “just spend a few moments with our preschoolers to see—and hear—the potential.”

Young girl holding a toy out for a womanFor me as a first-time visitor, that definitely was the case, even though I was aware that Clarke is where deaf and hard of hearing children learn to listen and speak.

Clarke has been involved in this work for some time. In fact, 2017 has been a year of celebration for Clarke, which has been serving deaf children and those with hearing loss for 150 years. Its Jacksonville location also celebrated its 20th anniversary this year.

Indeed, there is much to celebrate. Clarke serves more than 1,300 children annually at its five campuses along the East Coast. In addition to the one in Jacksonville, there are campuses in Boston and Northampton, Massachusetts; New York, New York; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Clarke has the ability to reach thousands more children and their families through programs like its Early Intervention Program and its Telepractice Virtual Intervention Services for Infants and Toddlers, or tVISIT. Through tVISIT, Clarke can serve families in distant locations through video conferencing.

Young girl reading a paper while teacher watchesJSF provided financial support for the tVISIT program. Over the past 10 years, the Foundation has provided grants for many other purposes as well, including residential scholarships, website upgrades and support of the Early Intervention Program.

I was excited to learn that in addition to the tVISIT program, another way in which Clarke reaches beyond its borders is by providing internships for student teachers who are interested in working with children who are deaf or hard of hearing. Some 60 education students from Florida colleges and universities complete their practicum requirements at Clarke Jacksonville each year, helping to fill a need for skilled teachers of the deaf.

Not surprisingly, the leadership at Clarke Jacksonville can attest to many success stories. Co-Director Alisa Demico has been at the site since it was founded two decades ago, and she remains in touch with many of the students who were in the very first preschool class. Today, most of those students either have graduated or are attending college, she said.

That is likely welcome news for many Clarke parents. For them, a bright future for their children is not just a holiday wish. At Clarke, it is becoming reality, each and every day.

How Leading with Empathy Can Create Positive Change

deaf elementary students playingAs an educator, it is important to pay attention to the latest research and trends related to effective instruction. As a special educator, this may be particularly important. But as an administrator, I often find myself relying heavily on my own observations and findings from “the field.” Working as an administrator of an elementary school serving deaf and hard of hearing students, children are often in my office requesting assistance. Sometimes they arrive on their own, asking for help solving a problem. More often, though, they are brought to the office by an adult who asks for collaboration on a discipline issue.

The word “collaboration” here is really important. In a traditional approach, the administrator may be the final stop, and may have the final say, when it comes to discipline. However, I have found it is more effective to collaborate with both the student and the staff member escorting the student. When children display misconduct, it is our job to figure out why. What does the child need?  What might he or she be asking for through this outburst of anger? This can be especially important when interacting with deaf or hard of hearing students who are also struggling with a language delay – which happens so often. When my approach becomes one of trying to understand, rather than trying to find an appropriate consequence, I am able to know the student’s thoughts, feelings, and fears more intimately and am able to develop a strong and positive relationship.

young students in green t shirts in a gardenWhen I ask the same questions of the adults, I become a support for them, showing empathy regarding the conflict they did not create, while also collaborating to find an appropriate resolution. This questioning of the adult reminds the student that staff members also have an emotional perspective, and such perspectives can lead to actions. Leading with empathy for everyone involved can produce amazing discussions and amazing results.

Leading with empathy. This can sometimes be considered being “soft” on misbehavior. However, in my work, I have found it solves more problems than being “tough” ever has. When students are upset, a genuine affirmation of their feelings can open doors to communication, bonding, and improved self-control. While that may sound difficult, it only takes a simple, “I am so sorry you are going through this; how can I help?” delivered with respect, and compassion. When we can do that for children, we can help them to become empathetic and compassionate individuals.

woman wearing a feather boa and smiling in a paradeWhen we invite them into the collaboration, we can help them become problem-solvers. If I have learned one thing from 22 years in Deaf Education, I have learned this: The world needs more problem solvers, and we can create them through empathetic thoughts, words, and actions. Leading with empathy builds a foundation that allows students to experience growth socially, emotionally, and academically because it allows them to acquire, develop, and practice real-world problem solving skills. And yes, sometimes I have to consequate kids because there are some behaviors that need a punitive response. But sometimes living through the conflict, and coming out on the other side, is consequence enough. When was the last time you got sent to Detention Hall because of a fight with your spouse? The disagreement and the resolution of that disagreement was consequence enough for you. And here’s the important part – involvement in working through conflict becomes a positive peace-making experience for everyone involved. Our kids and school staff deserve such experiences. I’ve learned that they become better people having had them.