Signs point student to deaf education

by Joe Carlson

Most people rely on their hands in some way for their livelihood, but for some, their hands are the key for gaining entry into their culture.
Delrene Schmidt is a graduate student studying deaf education at the University. She has worked as a secretary in the American Sign Language office since she began her graduate studies, and though she is hearing, she has been immersed in deaf culture long enough to know that she wants to work with the deaf when she graduates.
“Both my parents are deaf, so throughout my life I’ve been exposed to deaf culture,” Schmidt said.
Unbeknownst to many hearing people, the deaf have rapidly produced a unique culture all their own since the 1980s, when ASL began to become recognized as a distinct language. Schmidt grew up surrounded by the developing deaf culture.
“I learned how to sign before I learned how to speak,” she said. “I’ve known it all my life.”
And this fact is often illustrated even as she speaks: like most hearing people fluent in sign language, Schmidt uses brisk hand and facial gestures for emphasis as she talks.
Yet even though she grew up signing, she said her mother was always careful to make sure that she could speak well.
“My mom always signed with English ordering,” she said.
ASL is not simply a set of signs that directly correlate to spoken English. It is a complex system of gestures with its own rules of syntax and structure.
For example, sign language does not use verb conjugation. Rather, signers must always specify the time which is being referred to — yesterday, Saturday, next week — in the beginning of the sentence.
Schmidt said that her exposure to deaf culture fueled her interest in deaf education. Someday, she wants to teach deaf students in a number of different settings and styles.
“I would like to get as many different experiences with deaf education as possible,” she said.
Schmidt said that although she studies many different styles of deaf education, such as cued speech and lipreading, she prefers the expressiveness and accuracy of sign language. Cued speech uses a combination of spoken words and hand gestures to communicate an idea.
“I would like to teach at a school that teaches ASL,” she said.
But there are many educators who would disagree with Schmidt, saying that teaching sign causes deaf people to communicate only within a small subculture; not with the rest of society. Opponents of signing often argue that lipreading is one method that the deaf can use to effectively communicate with hearing people. But studies have found that only about 30 percent of spoken language can be understood in this manner.
“Everyone’s idea of deaf education is different,” Schmidt said.”It’s very controversial.”
Nevertheless, Schmidt is well on her way to her goals of teaching sign language. She already had attended Bethel College for education and was licensed to teach hearing children from preschool to sixth grade, when she found her calling.
“I had spoken to my adviser, and she mentioned teachers who were hearing who taught deaf children,” she said. “I realized that there was deaf education, and that you could get a degree in deaf education.”
Besides her graduate studies, she volunteers at the Ann Sullivan Community Center in Minneapolis, which teaches both hearing and deaf students. Minnesota requires that teachers of deaf students pass certain qualifications.
“You have to pass a certain test to teach deaf students,” she said. “We’re the only state that requires you to pass any specific test … I’ll be taking it in March.”
Schmidt said the difficulties she has seen and had with communication for deaf people have taught her the value of all communication.
“I really learned how important it is to communicate with another person, not only in ASL, but even when I’m speaking to people,” she said.