Growing Up Deaf
A brief look into Georgia’s deaf educational structure
As the teacher called over to Pamela Wilkerson, no response came.
“Pamela,” Mrs. Walsh, called. There was no answer.
“Pamela,” the teacher reiterated, but still no response came from the quiet, brown-haired girl.
The first lack of response may have seemed like a typical lack of attention from a six-year-old. The second may have seemed more defiant and intentional. But as the teacher called on Pamela repeatedly, she realized there was something much more serious at stake. Mrs. Walsh notified the girl’s parents and Pamela was then sent to have a brain wave test at Michael Reese Hospital, not far from the school she was attending when the problem was discovered in La Grange, Illinois.
She does not remember much of what happened that day, but what she does remember is the being put into a hospital bed with strange attachments to her head and her mom by her side. While many of the details of Pamela’s childhood may have become lost in her memory, there was one fact that remained undoubtedly sure in her mind. At six years old, Pamela had lost her hearing.
The specialists at Michael Reese Hospital, delivered the diagnosis: Pamela was deaf.
This was an unlikely occurrence in the Wilkerson family since everyone in Pamela’s immediate family was hearing. What made this realization even more unusual was that Pam had
been able to speak and hear when she was a baby. To suddenly lose such a prominent part of her senses could only be summed up as a “mystery,” as she recounts her doctor saying.
Deafness was now the overriding characteristic of Pamela’s life–a change that brought not only a culturally altering experience, but an educationally challenging one as well. When she was six, she was bursting with excitement to step foot in the halls of Pleasantdale School in LaGrange, Illinois, which her older brother and sister attended. She longed to run and play with kids on the playground and watching through the fence before she was old enough to go, wishing she were on the other side of that fence.
And then she was.
While Pamela’s situation was an unexpected occurrence in her family, there are many deaf children that have hearing parents. In fact, 93 percent of deaf children have hearing parents while only 7 percent are born to deaf parents. Of every 1,000 people in the United States, two of every four are classified as “functionally deaf,” according to federal data and published research distributed by the Gallaudet Research Institute. Simply being deaf is not the only issue that has to be brought to the table when thinking about how it affects a student’s educational experience. Research has shown that deaf and hard of hearing students who do not develop competent pragmatic language — understanding how to communicate socially in different contexts on a day-to-day basis — can as a result often suffer socially in school. In a research study put out by Gallaudet University, the U.S. Department of Education stated
in 2005 that “86 percent of deaf and hard of hearing children are educated in the general education environment.” This same research also shows that deaf students can sometimes feel isolated and feel more of a desire to be with others like them.
Moving from school to school was a way of life for Pamela, who grew up as an Army brat. After her days of attending Pleasantdale School with her memorable teacher Mrs. Walsh, it was time to move on. First it was Ogden School in La Grange, Illinois. Then two months later it was Madison Elementary School in Hinsdale, Illinois. Then after a year, it was off to Lincoln Elementary School in Elmhurst, Illinois. It was finally at the age of nine that Pamela settled into Pershing School in Joliet, Illinois, where she stayed until the age of 11. It was here that she felt a sense of belonging with the deaf friends that surrounded her. She was not so different here. They were the same and she liked that. There were people to talk to and hang out with. They were the same and they were deaf.
It was after moving to Athens, Georgia at the age of 12 that Pamela felt the strongest awareness of the difference between herself and the hearing students around her. In 1973, she attended Chase Street Elementary School, and two years later, attended Burney Harris Middle School, where she was given a hearing teacher with no interpreters and remembers being around only a few deaf students.
Educational services in Northeast Georgia for the deaf and hard of hearing were only beginning to take form when Pam
was in middle school. The Regional Educational Service Agencies (RESA) program had been adopted by the Board of Education in 1966, set in place to provide students with the proper instructional support needed in school and to provide schools with a more unified and practical way of providing shared services to students within the Northeast Georgia RESA district. While RESA policies were adopted for the state of Georgia in 1966, it was not until 1975 that Northeast Georgia started finding more deaf students in the area and began a program in that region of the state. Meanwhile, Clarke County had its own services, but in 1988 the two programs decided to come together to provide their services to the region. Finally, in 2001 the regional program settled down at Cleveland Road Elementary School where Lisa Buckner, the Coordinator for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Team, works to ensure that deaf and hard of hearing students in the region receive the essential instruction they need to do well in school.
“You can’t go outside of our 13 school systems and have a regional program that’s similar to this anywhere else in the state. It’s only here,” says Buckner, who has been teaching deaf and hard of hearing students for 22 years, and believes that her staff is and should be highly qualified for their service to the students that pass through this program. The interpreters in the program have to be certified under the Educational Interpreter Performance Assessment. The teachers in the deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) classrooms are certified in general and special education as well as for deaf education. “We’re dual certified, or triple certified in some cases, because we want to provide the best education,” says Buckner. Students are required to test into the DHH program and if they are already in it, they must be tested every three years in order to assess their improvement and whether or not they need to continue to be provided special services. While the program
may be required to separate some of the DHH students from their general education classrooms, the school system does not exclude the students from classes with other hearing students unless absolutely necessary for the child’s academic success. It all depends on the child’s Individualized Education Plan, which is a guideline that is planned out for each student with goals for the student to achieve as well as the services that must be provided to the student. An IEP team has to come to an agreement on a child’s education plan in order to put it into place. In fact, the school is in clear violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) if they only show the parents the plan that the IEP team has developed without the parent being involved in developing the plan. Sometimes what the IEP team in the Northeast Georgia RESA district may decide is that the child may do better in one of the state schools, Atlanta Area School for the Deaf in Clarkston, Ga., and Georgia School for the Deaf in Cave Spring, Ga. “State schools are always an option,” says Buckner, “but the whole team has to make that decision.” This is useful information but it could be condensed a little more.
When Pamela stepped foot into Georgia School for the Deaf at 15 years old, she could not have felt more at home. She could sign with friends and teachers in a community where she belonged. She was not different from her peers, but was understood because they were just like her. “I had somebody who finally accepted me for who I was,” she recalls. However, Pamela’s time at GSD was short-lived. She found herself back in Athens just one year later, which would turn out to be much more difficult than she may have expected.
Pamela’s father, Henry Wilkerson, who is an older man with many years of military experience behind him, can tell you story after story about his daughter — about how she went to D.C. to attend Gallaudet University and how he helped her move furniture in, or the time he remembers her being able to help out at the zoo for extra college credit for a class, or simply how much his daughter has had the opportunity to do so much despite the difficulty of being deaf. He certainly remembers the reasons for the move to Athens very clearly, saying they “had to pick Athens because they had special education.” But Athens was not the only place they looked. They looked in Missouri. They looked in Maine. They looked in North Carolina. And then they looked in Athens. As her father recalls, “Georgia had one of the best special education classes at that particular time.” He put his Chicago home up for sale and sold it the very same day and after that it was off to Athens.
The last three years of her schooling were spent at Cedar Shoals High School. The isolation and loneliness were felt strongest at that school and her time during these years were “depressing,” as she recounts. She had three friends, but no one who could have understood her feelings completely, no one who she could talk comfortably with, no one who was deaf. So she became familiar with hiding, slipping away into a small world that was uncomfortably comfortable. Hiding in bathrooms, hiding in the nurse’s office–who was not aware of Pamela’s presence in the room–and hiding from rejection.
It is almost like a domino effect when thinking about how social isolation plays out. If deaf children are not exposed to the right authoritative influences who teach them how to behave properly in society, then they will have bigger problems down the road. The teachers do not necessarily have the same social expectations, causing the student to become “less likely to be challenged to meet increasingly higher standards of social performance,” according to research presented by the American Annals of the Deaf published by Gallaudet University.
Self-determination also plays a key role in the ability of a student to do well both academically and socially in a school environment. For deaf and hard of hearing students, research has been done that conveys that students can learn to push themselves forward through the idea of self-determination despite a various number of disabilities.
While some deaf students may feel discriminated against by their teachers, it may come as no surprise that their peers can only highlight these differences. The three years at Cedar Shoals were not easy. She recalls being made fun of by those in her high school for her deafness. People would come up to her and mouth phrases like, “Can you read my lips?” over and over. This was an experience that caused her to stand up for herself, telling them firmly and abruptly to “back off.” She spent three years feeling isolated from the world inside her high school. She felt what so many high schoolers work so hard not to be — different.
At this point in Pamela’s life, her signing was not fully developed. She relied mostly on reading lips when she was in the classroom and could also articulate words fairly well due to having speech therapy growing up.
She went throughout most of her high school years facing the struggles that her fellow hearing students could not relate to. Learning did not come easily, but it was not because she was not capable or intelligent, but that the resources she needed were not provided to her. Pamela remembers the frustration she experienced, struggling to figure out what one of her teachers was trying to teach as she sat in class at Cedar Shoals. As the teacher taught, he would turn around to the board and she was no longer able to know what he was saying. “I’m telling you, it really confused me.”
She was lost.
She had not been given interpreters in her classes except for one year of English class, whom she claims was not certified. However, Pamela “was just happy that someone was there that could sign.” Struggling to understand the words uttered off of the lips of a hearing teacher, having to ask what the homework was after class and having to get extra help were significant parts of the three years that made up her time at Cedar Shoals. “I hate[d] being forced to depend on reading lips all the time,” Pamela says. When Pamela was not clear on what was being taught, she would go up to the teacher after class and communicate that she did not know what was said. Even though the teacher would scribble his notes onto a sheet of paper for her to read, Pamela still had trouble understanding some of the words so she would have to go to her dad to gain a
clearer understanding. ***
While Pamela’s struggle was evident, much has changed in deaf education since her high school experience in the 1980’s. In 2001, the Annual Survey of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children and Youth found that two-thirds of students were able to be included in some of the mainstream classes instead of being placed fully in self-contained classrooms or other types of special education programs. More specifically, in the Northeast Georgia RESA district, there are around 120 students that are being serviced through the program. However, when it comes to deaf education it is not as black and white as hearing school performing better in mainstream schools and deaf students performing better in deaf schools. It all depends on the child and the resources that the parents decide are best for the learning of that particular child. Buckner says that some deaf and hard of hearing students can “test out” of being provided services depending on the circumstances of individual student such as receiving a hearing aid or cochlear implant that is strong enough to participate in general education classes.
Pamela believed that she was smart. She believed she had potential. She believed she could be academically successful. Pamela does not believe that she had been given the opportunities to bring these qualities out to their fullest potential. “I feel like if a teacher had taken time to work with me and teach me more, I would have been picking it up like that cause I was smart.”
While there were many days Pamela would have rather stayed away from her school, she had a mother who consistently encouraged her throughout the years she attended until she finally made her way to graduation in 1982.
After passing the milestone of graduation, Pam waited until 2001 before heading off to Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf, in Washington, D.C. Pam planned to major in animation, but after a semester she decided on a different career path, leading her to Truett McConnell College and then to Savannah College of Art and Design where she decided to major in liberal arts until she decided to leave for family reasons.
Pamela hopes that one day she can finish her college career, but for now she currently spends time teaching science to a deaf student one-on-one. Giving children the opportunity to know that they have potential and a bright future ahead of them is something that Pamela believes every deaf child needs. She believes that children need to know the rights that are given to them and to understand the world of discrimination against deaf culture.
While Pamela has learned to overcome many obstacles along the way, it does not mean the struggle has not been there.
While sitting in her basement at home, Pamela began weeping over her loss, her difference, her deafness.
“Why me? I’m deaf. Why me?”
Her prayer went out into the space of the basement. She believed that God had given her an answer to the agonizing question that was plaguing her mind. It did not come through words that could be heard or signs that could be interpreted, but through visualizations. She pictured children — those with needs much greater than her own. She pictured those that had more severe disabilities that were harder to overcome than her own. It was then that Pamela realized how she believed God had blessed her and had been good to her and she was very moved by such a realization.