Monday, March 01, 2010

Avril Thompson was a champion for the deaf

Avril Thompson was a champion for the deaf

Allen Schneider remembers going with his mother as a 3-year-old to Tony Vallone's original restaurant on Sage, where she was a singer in the 1960s.

But he does not remember the music. He has been deaf since birth.

Schneider's mother, Avril D. Thompson, who left her singing career to become a passionate advocate for the hearing-impaired, died Feb. 10 at Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital after suffering a fall at her Houston home. She was 79.

Schneider, of Friendswood, said his mother's efforts on his behalf helped him learn to communicate with American Sign Language and speech.

“My mom sought what was best for me,” he said. “If not for that, she would have been famous in the entertainment business.”

Besides working for better education and job opportunities for the deaf, Thompson later took up other causes, including helping women in prison, said her pastor, the Rev. Mark Cooper of Christ Church Presbyterian in Bellaire.

“She had a sense of really standing up for folks who kind of got the short end of the stick in a whole variety of ways,” Cooper said.

Born Feb. 5, 1931, in Atlanta, Thompson grew up in Florida after being adopted by a great-aunt and great-uncle, Elsie and Harold Parsons.

She sang on the radio as a child and performed as a teenager. After leaving Florida, she toured as a singer on the East Coast and Canada.

Thompson adopted the stage name Avril Ames at the suggestion of the Ames Brothers, said her first husband, Aaron Schneider.

At the time, she was singing with a group, The Bachelors, that opened for the Ames quartet, he said.

Thompson came to Houston with The Bachelors in 1961, when the group decided to stay here, he said.

She performed as Avril Ames at Houston clubs, including Tony's restaurant on Sage.

She and Aaron Schneider married in 1962, and Allen was born in 1964.

Although it took doctors months to confirm the baby was deaf, his parents quickly realized he could not hear, Aaron Schneider said.

The couple divorced in 1967 but remained friends, he said. In 1968, she married Bert Thompson, who died in 2008.

When Allen Schneider was 5, Thompson left her career to devote herself to her son, Aaron Schneider said. She also became a fighter for the entire deaf community, friends said.

“She was a force to be reckoned with,” said Claire Bugen, superintendent of the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin. “She learned everything she could about deafness and educational options.”

Bugen recalled meeting Thompson in 1977, when Allen Schneider entered the school as a seventh-grader.

At the time, Bugen said, educators favored keeping students with disabilities in their home districts, in the “least restrictive environment.”

Thompson met resistance when she wanted Houston education officials to send her son to the state school.

“She was passionate that the least restrictive environment has to be defined for each student,” Bugen said.

Allen Schneider, who works with sorting equipment at the downtown Houston post office, said that when he and his mother visited the state school, they knew it was the best fit for him.

Thompson's work to get her son into the Austin school helped result in legislation giving the parents of deaf children more school options, Bugen said.

The Rev. Arthur Craig, pastor at Woodhaven Baptist Deaf Church in Houston, said Thompson and her late husband started a support group for hearing parents of deaf children in the church.

A memorial service was held Wednesday.

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