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Today's word on journalism

January 13, 2009


"I get the feeling that the 24-hour news networks are like the bus in the movie 'Speed.' If they stop talking for a second, they think they'll blow up."

--Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, 2008 (Thanks to alert WORDster Ross Martin)

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Student teaches nuances of deaf communication

DO YOU GET IT?: Ellen O'Hara makes a point at Joke Night during Deaf Awareness week. / Photo by Leah Lopshire

By Leah Lopshire

December 12, 2008 | The basement of the Lilly White Building is as quiet as a house at midnight. It seems that everyone has left for the day. Yet all the rooms are occupied with silent students. This is where Ellen O'Hara spends hours each day assisting in the progress of education.

All of the students and teachers recognize Ellen. From the light smile on her lips to the slump in her shoulders as she sits back in her chair she looks relaxed in her familiar environment.

SHOWING APPRECIATION: The audience "claps" at the end of the performance. / Photo by Leah Lopshire

It is 5 p.m., and time for her lab session to start. She stands between the dry-erase board and her three to five students seated in a horseshoe. The students are very intent, never taking their eyes off of Ellen's hands. As she starts to teach there are still no words, only a fluid motion of her arms, hands and fingers. Ellen, however, is not a teacher, but a deaf student and lab instructor at Utah State.

Having a deaf child was not something new to Ellen's parents. Three out of the seven children are unable to hear. "My oldest sister Molly and my second oldest brother Toby are deaf." Not only does Ellen have deaf siblings, but also her father and his mother are deaf. Surprisingly Ellen's grandmother and father were not the first to learn ASL (American Sign Language) in Ellen's family.

"My mother was the first to learn ASL in my family and she taught all of the kids. My father, like his mom, does not consider ASL a language. My grandmother never learned ASL growing up. She learned to read lips and speak and taught my father to do the same. To this day my father knows some ASL but is not fluent, and my grandmother only knows the sign for "I love you" and the ABC's."

Growing up it was important to Ellen's father to teach his children to read lips and be able to speak. Speaking is "so unnatural with deaf people that it is highly uncommon for those is the deaf community."

The division in her family between ASL and English speakers was a pushing point of Ellen's mother, and now Ellen, for deaf people to have a bi-lingual and bi-cultural education, so that they will be well rounded. Finding a school that offered both bi-lingual and bi-culture was rare. In order for her daughter to get the proper education Ellen and her family moved often in the first 18 years of her life.

When it was time for Ellen to go to college she, like all high school seniors, had a lot to consider. First trying BYU, Ellen decided that it wasn't the school for her. Going into deaf education, Ellen said, "the main reason I came to Utah State was the deaf education program here."

When Ellen got to Utah State she realized that campus life was not going to be an easy place for her to live. She was first placed in an all-hearing dorm. After two weeks a spot opened up on the deaf floor in Moam Hall, but even then Ellen's roommate was not deaf nor did she know any sign language. "She was only a deaf education major and had not started her classes yet." This, however, quickly became the least of Ellen's problems.

During her first year in Logan Ellen was among a group of students who sued the school for lack of services provided. Deaf Services Coordinator Angie Olsen said, "The school was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, by not providing enough interpreters."

In that first year Ellen said that many times the interpreter who showed up would be a student, or a note taker; both are unequipped to translate the amount of information necessary.

Since the lawsuit the school has hired two full-time and four part-time interpreters, and when needed they hire out from other agencies. Olsen said that the school is still looking for a third full time interpreter. The problem with getting a third interpreter Olsen said is that "there is a nationwide shortage of ASL interpreters, and Logan is not a place that many people want to re-locate to."

A fighter for fair treatment and deaf awareness Ellen said that, " The situation on campus has improved since the lawsuit, but Utah State is still no a deaf friendly campus." Ellen feels that there are more aspects on campus life that need improvement. One such improvement is to "train workers in public places on campus, like the library or the Hub, in some basic ASL so that they can communicate what they need to when deaf students come by."

At any deaf related function Ellen is always present. Being the Deaf Ed Student Association and vice president, and ASL liaison keeps her active. Adding on to her busy schedule Ellen has been a lab instructor for the deaf education program for the past three and a half years. Last year she was named lab instructor of the year.

In the labs she gets a chance to teach students, who are mainly hearing, how to take what they have learned in class and apply those skills.

In the labs no talking is allowed. This rule is used in all ASL classes on campus to help motivate students to learn the language faster.

One of the biggest problems that Ellen has to break her students of is body language when they communicate. Watching two people communicate using ASL you will see a large difference than those who speak. ASL, unlike any other language, relies solely on the visual aspect of communication.

"Facial expressions are key to getting a meaning across," Ellen says. Many signs will have two different meanings with just a lift in the eyebrow. When her students aren't grasping the importance of this, she will often give them an example of their stiff version saying something, and how it should look. Facial expressions and body positioning clarify meaning, and they are visually more appealing, Ellen said. It substitutes for fluctuations in the voice.

As a member of Logan's deaf community, Ellen also takes the formal vocabulary taught in class, and teaches the students how to use it in social situations. "Sometimes what we learn in class is the technical way to say something. Ellen teaches us the 'slang' way to sign it. The things that aren't necessarily in the textbooks," on lab student said. "It's nice because she is our age so many times it's informal and we spend a lot of time just talking."

As the end of lab approaches, Ellen opens up the Webster's dictionary to a random page. She closes her eyes and points to a word. She looks up at her students and spells the word out with her fingers. Her quick pace leaves many of her students with a puzzled looks as they try to remember key letters they saw. Ellen waits a second, then tries again. After the third spelling, one of her students fingerspells the word back to her. Ellen waves her hand, queuing the girl that she has permission to leave. Then it's on to a new word until all of her students have correctly signed different words back to her. Then she is left alone waiting for her next lab group to come in and start the process all over again.


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