Friday, February 26, 2010

140 Years: Landmark Anniversary For Deaf, Blind School

140 Years: Landmark Anniversary For Deaf, Blind School

With the 140th anniversary of the creation of the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind just a week away, one instructor says it's mind-boggling to think about the changes she's seen on campus just in her lifetime.
Mary Ennis Kesler, 30, said she sometimes tries to explain to her students just how much cell phone text-messaging, the Internet and other technology have changed life for people with hearing impairments.

"We have access to the whole world now," said Kesler, a Lewis County native who enrolled at the Romney school in 1984 when she was 4. "Technology has made it so that not being able to hear doesn't keep a person from doing anything they want to do. There are all these ways to communicate, all these ways to learn. We're not isolated like before."

Situated on the same campus, the state's School for the Blind also is experiencing a revolution in technology with a plethora of devices such as Braille PDAs and laptops equipped with the latest in voice-recognition software.

Despite the tech revolution, the Romney school in many ways approaches its mission in the same way it did in its earliest days, said Patsy Shank, the school's superintendent.

"It's about our students and what they need as individuals," said Shank, a Keyser native who began teaching here in 1981 and became superintendent in mid-2007.

"Technology allows our teachers to teach more effectively and more creatively, there's no doubt. But what we're doing now is what we've always done -- put to use the most cutting-edge tools we have available so that our students can access information and achieve their highest potentials."

Priscilla Bohrer, the school's technology coordinator, said she tries diligently to stretch the technology budget by securing grants wherever possible and also by making careful buying decisions -- typically taking new products on loan and asking students to test them before the school makes a purchase.

"We like the students to give something a try for 30 days and see if it really fits their needs," she said. "They're very honest. If something works, they tell me so. If something doesn't work, typically you'll see them just not using it."

Some students ride a bus to school from within Hampshire County or neighboring communities, but most of the school's 161 students live on campus, so the recent installation of wireless Internet access throughout the dorms was widely cheered, Bohrer said.

The school also purchased 30 mini laptops for juniors and seniors. They come with software that blocks all shopping sites, social networking outlets such as Facebook and other destinations deemed inappropriate.

Classroom Changes

Kesler, who studied anthropology and sociology at West Virginia University and earned her master's degree at Fairmont State University, remembers her parents, both hearing-impaired, embracing new technology as it became available, notably the Telecommunications Device for the Deaf (TDD), an electronic apparatus that beginning in the 1960s allowed for text conversations via a telephone line.

"That was a big deal because it allowed them to function so much better," she said.

But to her students, the TDD -- a much smaller machine these days with a computer screen to display text rather than the words printing out on paper -- hardly qualifies as technology, Kesler continued. "Now our students stay in touch with their parents back home by using video phones."

The technology allows deaf students to hold phone conversations not only with others with hearing impairments but also allows for conversations between the deaf and the hearing. After picking up the videophone connected to a TV, a deaf student sees a trained sign language interpreter appear on screen. The student signs to the interpreter, who then talks to the hearing user via a regular phone line.

There are three such units on campus, Bohrer said, and parents with hearing impairments are provided equipment for their homes.

"We know it's very important for our students to be able to stay in touch with the people they love back home," she said.

Kesler remembers in the years before TDDs were widely used when face-to-face offered the sole means for communication to most deaf people.

"You'd have to drive to someone's house, see if they were even home, just to ask a simple question," she said.

By allowing people with hearing impairments greater access to every aspect of modern life, technology has opened doors to a range of occupations and aspirations, Kesler said.

"Before, if you were deaf, you went into a vocation such as printing or clerical work," she said. "Now with so much work being done on computers, there are so many different businesses you can choose from. You can work from home or invent your own business. Before, the number of options was limited, like a pinpoint. Now it's wide, wide open."

In the classroom, technology gets students excited about what they're studying in class, boosts their understanding and allows more give and take as opposed to her giving a lecture and the students sitting and listening, Kesler said.

Kesler, who teaches at the elementary level, is devoted to her "smart board," which allows her to use her laptop to quickly project photos, drawings and text onto a display board and then manipulate the images with a pen, finger or other device.

Because students with hearing impairments depend more on their sense of vision, it's a huge learning boost to be able to quickly offer an image to help a student understand a new concept, Kesler said.

Mike Coleman, principal for the elementary School for the Deaf, said Kesler and other teachers make the latest technology an everyday part of the classroom.

"Years ago, if you were reading about Texas and the text mentioned an armadillo, a student would naturally want to know what an armadillo looks like," he said. "So the teacher would have to go to an encyclopedia, flip through to find the entry and maybe there'd be one small, black and white illustration. Now you can find photos, multiple photos of armadillos. You can video showing armadillos actually digging. You have that instant visual and all the other information you could possibly want, literally right there at the teacher's fingertips."

A Crisis in Braille?

For Braille users, the technology tsunami of recent years has spawned unease that old-school Braille will become a forgotten way for the blind to read and create written communication.

"It's a huge concern," said Romney teacher Donna Brown, who learned to read Braille from kindergarten as a student at Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia.

"Like so many things, there's a good side to what technology can do, and there are aspects that can be a bit troubling," said Brown, who is 50 and joined the faculty at the School for the Blind 27 years ago.

As voice recognition software has become more sophisticated and less expensive, many people with visual impairments rely on such programs to read e-mail, complete paperwork and handle other day-to-day tasks that require reading and writing.

"When I talk with someone who says he or she doesn't see the need to learn Braille, I ask what they'd do if their technology breaks down," Brown explained. "How would you even write a note? You've got to be able to use the low-tech method, too."

Learning Braille also requires mastery of spelling, grammar and punctuation rules, Brown said.

"If you've written something on your computer through voice, you may not catch an extra space between a period or realize how you should organize sentences into a paragraph," she said.

A recent report from the National Federation of the Blind called the decline in Braille use a crisis, saying just 10 percent of blind school-age children use it as their primary means of reading and writing.

It's been nearly two centuries since Louis Braille, a blind Frenchman, created the method of communication that organizes raised dots into distinct characters.

But in recent decades, Braille instruction has faltered, according to officials with the National Federation of the Blind, because of a shortage of Braille instructors and a belief by some that Braille instruction is no longer a must.

Brown said Braille instruction remains a strict requirement at her school. It can take a couple of years for students to become fluent. Patience and practice are essential, she said.

"You have to develop that sensitivity in your fingertips," Brown said. "Motivation is another big part of the equation. Sometimes students who still have some vision feel like they don't need to learn Braille. Or sometimes a person with deteriorating vision is just beginning to learn Braille when they're older, and that can be more difficult."

Brown herself uses both Braille and the voice-to-text readers.

"When the first programs came out, I'll admit I wasn't used to listening and felt pretty reluctant to use them," Brown said.

But following staff development classes in technology, Brown said she began to recognize the new methods' value.

"When I could create my own IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) and didn't have to dictate them to anyone, that's when I knew. I love being able to handle my own paperwork."

Brown still uses Braille for all kinds of undertakings, including exploring Web sites. Her go-to device is a refreshable Braille display machine with wireless Internet access.

"It's kind of like a laptop," she said. "The Braille translation of what's on the Web site pops up on my display, I read over it and it refreshes to the next line. The only downside is that it's expensive."

The reader that Brown uses cost $6,000, she said, and a refreshable Braille display stand-alone unit that can be used with any computer runs about $2,000, she said.

The cost of Braille devices and books is often cited as one of the reasons its use has declined. Braille translations also can be cumbersome. When the final edition of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series was published in 2007, the Braille edition of the 1,100-page "Deathly Hallows" took up 10 volumes and weighed 12 pounds.

Whatever its drawbacks, Brown said she believes Braille must not be shoved to the side in favor of just listening to text and delivering dictation.

"This is a topic that's very near and dear to me, and I try to have conversations anytime I can about how important Braille is," she said. "Being able to read and write is as essential to the visually impaired as it is to anyone else."

Serving Smaller Numbers

When J.D. Corbin began his career teaching high school at the School for the Deaf in 1979, enrollment still was large enough to allow the school to field a football team.

"I have the distinction of serving as coach of the school's last football team," said Corbin, who has been the school's principal for 12 years. "That was in 1983. We just didn't have enough kids."

In the past five years, the school's enrollment has ranged from a low of 150 to a high of 175, while in the 1960s and early 1970s, the school typically had between 350 and 400 students, Shank said.

The school's enrollment has been in decline since the mid-1970s following federal legislation that called for students with visual, auditory or other disabilities to be taught in their neighborhood schools if they so chose.

Another part of the decline in the school's student numbers: Advances in technology -- cochlear implants, for example, and realizing the detrimental effects of supplemental oxygen on premature infants -- mean fewer children are dealing with vision and hearing losses, Shank pointed out.

Medical breakthroughs coupled with more children with vision and hearing disabilities being mainstreamed in their home school districts likely means the school's numbers will continue to decline, Corbin said.

He said everyone at the school works hard to ensure students are nurtured and challenged.

"One thing that sets our school apart, that I think is a real advantage to our students, would be all the opportunities for involvement -- and to not only be involved but to be the leaders running the show," he said.

The school maintains wrestling and basketball teams, a cheerleading squad, clubs such as Future Farmers of America, newsletter and yearbook staffs and many other extracurricular offerings, he said.

"We have a lot of very devoted alumni, too," Corbin said. "They sponsor students in various activities and just find ways to stay close to the school. When we have homecoming events or induct athletes in our hall of fame, we always have a lot of our former students come back."

Doug Godfrey, chairman of the West Virginia Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and a 1986 graduate of the School for the Deaf, continues to be involved at the school.

Godfrey, who was appointed to the commission by Gov. Bob Wise in 2002, said he looks forward to his weekly visits to Romney, where he has volunteered for a decade in the elementary school's Shared Reading program.

"I love reading with these kids," said Godfrey, who works with Unisys computer systems for the IRS. "These children need to develop strong reading and literacy skills because most of them are likely to miss out on language development that come primarily through listening."

Godfrey, whose roots are in Northfork in McDowell County, attended the school in Romney from age 6. He said he inevitably forms connections with students as he spends time with them.

"Since I am a graduate of the school, young students often asked me what it was like when I was in their situation -- living in the dorm instead of with families, eating cafeteria food, etc.," Godfrey explained in an e-mail exchange.

He pointed out that nationally, more than 90 percent of deaf children come from hearing families.

"When I get to know students at the school, there is a sense of bond between us that not many of them have with other adults," he said.

Godfrey said he's excited to his see the school reaching this landmark anniversary.

"I think it is a big deal to celebrate 140 years," he said. "Deaf and blind schools in other states have either closed or threatened to close or trim services due to budgetary cuts. I think this is one of the reasons the existence of the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind should be celebrated.

"It's the only school specifically geared toward the education of deaf, hard hearing and visually impaired youth in West Virginia."

The fact that West Virginia has such a school and that it continues to be supported by elected leaders of both political parties, Godfrey said, is something to be "deeply appreciated."