Posted on

Breaking through: How sign language classes became ‘a miracle’ for this Newfoundland mom

It’s after-hours at Stephenville Elementary, but the laughter coming from one classroom spills into the empty corridor like an overflowing bathtub.

Crammed inside an art room, 20 people from all walks of life — a cop, some seniors, two high school students — sit arranged in a horseshoe, devoting two hours of their Tuesday evening to learn American Sign Language, or ASL.

To me, the class has just been — it’s a miracle that it happened,” said Jennifer Parsons.

A miracle, borne out of a desire to have what so many take for granted: the ability to communicate with her daughter.

As the years have passed, it’s been hard for Parsons and her husband Chris to keep their signing apace with Hannah’s ever-growing communication needs. But there was never any option for organized classes; the only ones offered regularly in Newfoundland and Labrador were 700-odd kilometres out of reach, in St. John’s.

That was, until Jennifer and Hannah took a shopping trip into Corner Brook one day, and unknowingly became the catalysts for a language shift on the west coast.

Catalyst for change

The mother and daughter had caught wind of a new toy store, Kinder Castle, in Corner Brook. Its owner, Lynn Drover, opened it in the spirit of creating an inclusive space that catered to children of all needs. 

At Kinder Castle, wind-up robots share shelf space with weighted blankets. When the Parsons walked in, Drover attempted to sign to Hannah about toys, but her fingers had forgotten the few signs she had learned years ago. 

“It was really, really upsetting to me,” Drover recalled.

“After I went home that night, that little girl was still on my mind. And I went looking for someone to teach me sign language.”

That someone was David Kennedy.

Posted on

‘Passion, purpose and laser-like focus’ for 2019

I am sharing this message from my friend Claudia Gordon: “Happy New Year!! I’m stepping into 2019 armed with passion, purpose, and laser-like focus. My promise to myself is to starve distractions and feed focus… to continually ask myself if what I am doing today is getting me closer to where I want to be tomorrow. Friend, it’s going to be a great year. Let’s go.”

To understand better why her greeting resonates, meet Claudia Johnson Esq: Jamaican-born and the first deaf black woman attorney-at-law in the USA. She served in the Barack Obama White House as head of their division for disabled persons and now she is a legal counsel at Sprint.

Claudia has never allowed being deaf to stand in her way. I first heard Claudia speak about her experience of going deaf as a primary school student in Cascade, St Mary. She recalls a deaf-mute in her district who was bullied and she said her late mother was resolute that she would not suffer the same fate. Thus, they migrated to the US where she could have teaching assistance in school and ascended the academic ladder to law school.

Claudia’s company is energising; her passion for life and for the special needs community is contagious. As Maya Angelou noted: “Everything influences each of us, and because of that I try to make sure that my experiences are positive.” This new year seek the company of the positive people.

As I read Dr Floyd Morris’s autobiography, By Faith, Not by Sight, I see the parallels in their lives. Morris is also St Mary born and was a bright student at St Mary High School when he suddenly started to go blind. His marks and mental state plummeted and he left school without one subject. When he dropped out of school blind he went into poultry farming to earn a living, configuring the coop so he would not step on the chickens.

Do we understand the power of radio for the blind? Young Floyd was a dedicated listener and one day heard an interview on Dorraine Samuels’ programme about the Jamaica School for the Blind. He called her and she encouraged him to relocate to Kingston so he could attend the school. “By faith, not by sight,” he sat the General Certificate of Education (GCE) exams with the assistance of his friends Gary Allen (CEO of the Gleaner-RJR Communications Group) and journalist Patrick Harley. In 2017 he earned his PhD from The University of the West Indies.

The first blind Jamaican senator and state minister, Floyd Morris is no tribalist. He speaks fondly of his schoolmates who were followers of “Uncle Eddie” while he admired “Joshua”. This thread of positivity and unity continues through his book, which is infused with the rich history of post-Independence Jamaica.

Posted on

Maine man charged with killing girlfriend going on trial

FARMINGTON, Maine (AP) A Maine man charged with killing his girlfriend is set to go on trial.

James Sweeney is using an insanity defense and has waived his right to a jury trial. That means a judge will be hearing evidence in the trial set to begin Monday.

Sweeney is charged with murder in the 2017 killing of 51-year-old Wendy Douglas.

Police say Sweeney killed Douglas while she slept in her Jay home. Investigators believe a baseball bat found in Douglas’ home was used in the killing.

Sweeney, who is deaf, turned himself in after the death and gave police a note that said, “I am going to jail cause I hurt my girlfriend.”

Posted on

NHS to offer hundreds more deaf people life-changing cochlear implant

Hundreds more deaf people whose hearing loss is too severe for conventional hearing aids will be eligible to receive implants on the NHS after the UK’s health watchdog announced it would scale back the previously strict criteria.

The National Institute of health and Care Excellence (Nice) has revised guidance on funding cochlear implants and estimates around 850 adults and children a year could benefit.

Cochlear implants consist of a microphone, processor and transmitter worn outside the body and a receiver and electrodes under the skin which send signals into the auditory nerves and brain.

The change comes after Nice, which evaluates cost effectiveness of NHS treatments, reviewed definitions of profound deafness from being unable to hear sounds above 90 decibels in two or more frequencies, to 80Db.

The National Deaf Children’s Society welcomed the announcement and said the implants can have an “incredible impact” for thousands of deaf children.

Posted on

Mock trial helps deaf, hearing-impaired students see themselves in law

– In the classroom turned courtroom, the teenage litigators sat nervously awaiting the start of the trial. After a short pep talk from judge Kelly Rodgers, the students nodded in affirmation: they were ready for opening statements.

With that, one of the six American history students at the Minnesota State High School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing stepped up to the podium and began to silently argue the case. It dealt with bullying and centered on a possible hate crime committed in the halls of a fabricated school.

Throughout the hourlong mock trial, the students had to frequently pause from signing, waiting for interpreters to repeat their points or questions for the handful of non-student observers.

Posted on

New Israeli Smartphone App May Revolutionize Communication for Deaf People

A new smartphone app developed by students at the Holon Institute of Technology (HIT) will facilitate communication by deaf people without the aid of sign language.

DAS-Deaf Access Solution was developed by two students at HIT and uses a Google app called Speech Recognizer to translate speech into text, allowing the deaf and hard of hearing to interact one-on-one with hearing people in various situations, such as doctors’ visits and business transactions.

Ayelet Avraham, 28, one of the developers of the application, told Hebrew news site Mako that she got the idea when she saw a deaf person trying to buy a cellular phone, but was unable to communicate with the salesman.

“I returned home and couldn’t relax,” she said. “My husband and I couldn’t understand how in 2018 there was no technological solution to this problem. It seemed insane to me, so we investigated and found that there was no such technology in Israel. Even though there’s a law that obligates places to be accessible, there had been no attempt until today to advance the issue.”

“Thanks to technology,” she added, “we can all function anyplace in the world even if we don’t know the language. For example, you can write something and the taxi driver can hear it and understand, so how could it be possible that there is no such possibility for the deaf? Reality today isolates the deaf from the public space.”

Avraham and her partners brought the idea to one of her professors, who reacted positively. He put them in touch with Access Israel, an organization that aids the disabled.

Following a few more tweaks and fixes, Avraham will present the app to the organization.

According to Avraham, one of the major advantages of the application is that, unlike normal texting apps, it requires no personal information to connect with users. Instead, it uses simple proximity to identify users and start conversations.

“This is especially good for meetings between doctors and patients, salesmen and customers, professors and students, etc,” said Avraham. “These are situations that are less amenable to exchanging personal telephone numbers … but there’s still the need to conduct and follow a conversation.”

Her application, she says, “allows the deaf to understand what’s happening around them and not depend on others’ knowledge of sign language.”

As a public service, Avraham and her team are hoping to use Access Israel to raise awareness of the application.

“The application works,” she said, “but we haven’t sent it to stores, because the goal isn’t just to distribute it, but to do it in a way that will be advantageous and have the most benefit. If we don’t do it publicly, chances are it will disappear and no one will hear much about it. We want to present it to Access Israel in order to make the change in a country-wide, systematic way.”

Thus far, the response has been very good, but Avraham is waiting to see what will happen when the app becomes widely available to deaf customers.

“I can’t wait for the stage when we see it in practical operation,” she said. “It’s really a dream to think that the day will come when our application will become something routine in every business, public or private, and makes the world more acceptable. If it happens — we did our job.”