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Teaching The Deaf: How To Create A Dynamic Experience

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Hearing loss is not uncommon in the United States. In fact, around two to three children out of every thousand are born with a detectable level of hearing loss; that means that nearly one million people in this country must live life without being able to depend on one of their senses. Overcoming this challenge isn’t impossible, but it is difficult.

Lost In Translation

Take the simple pleasure of going to the theater. Whether you’re watching one of Shakespeare’s intense plays or an improv comedy show, you’re going to have to have to split your attention between the physical performance and the translators standing off to the side, wearing all black and emotionlessly (compared to the actors) signing every spoken word. This is not only distracting, but it also defeats the point of live performances: physical displays are extremely important for deaf individuals as emotional context is crucial to a clear understanding. When both exist separately, the result is an uninteresting and disengaging experience.

That’s why students at Columbus State Community College’s Interpreter Education Program decided to put a little sass into their signage: during a recent performance of Holiday Hoopla (a signature show of the performance troupe in its Brewery District theater) which featured a skit about Kim Kardashian and her husband Kanye West, Lindsay Longbrake took advantage of a non-verbal moment to start twerking.

“The hope was to help hearing-impaired patrons in the audience pick up on every nuance, emotion, and joke without requiring them to constantly ping-pong back and forth between interpreter and actor,” said Stacie Boord, the theater’s executive director.

Longbrake is one of six students participating in the program — and the show. It’s common for a lot to get lost in translation when interpreters stick to standard, static signing, yet Boord is determined to change that. After all, she said, if hearing-impaired patrons are to enjoy the show as much as others, shouldn’t the interpreters be just as dynamic as the performers? Her solution was to encourage the interpreters to act as much as they sign: a grandmotherly character might have a hunched back while she signs, and a character who’s reading a book might hold their hands up, palms facing in, to simulate the physical action.

The Struggle With Scientific Signing

Entertainment is one side of deaf living, but what about school? Studies show that the best method of teaching is to incorporate both audio and visual components into the lesson: in three days, people will only be able to retain 10% of what they heard from an oral presentation, 35% from a visual presentation, and 65% from a combination of both. But what happens if you can’t rely on audio at all?

If you’re in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, medicine) fields, not much. These areas of study are loaded with scientific jargon that simply doesn’t exist in sign language; the accepted solution has been to (agonizingly) spell out every single letter of the word.

Lorne Farovich, a graduate student in translational biomedical sciences at the University of Rochester, is working to change this. In his tenth year of scientific study and only two years away from his PhD, his focus is on anaplasma phagocytophilum — a bacteria that travels in ticks and causes illnesses in both humans and animals. Throughout Farovich’s entire career, he’s had to sign out that tongue-twister — and a slew of others — letter by letter.

He reports that it is a surefire way to get your students to drift in attention: the slow act removes momentum from a conversation and deaf individuals lose focus. His dedication (other than to his PhD completion) to compiling an online visual dictionary for STEM students allows a commonality to exist between universities and disciplines; when everyone can reference what the sign for anaplasma phagocytophilum is, the need to spell it out disappears and advances can be made at a much faster pace.

With the evolution of deaf teaching methods, thanks to people like Farovich and Boord, life with only four senses can become a lot more manageable — and a lot more fun.