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Interpreters help deaf student succeed at college

In the year of the first female president, the University also has its first deaf student requiring an interpreter in the classroom.

Trinity freshman Angela Earhart has been deaf since birth, but was not diagnosed until the age of two. The cause of her deafness is unknown; however, some doctors speculate about a possible gene mutation.

At two and one half years, Earhart began attending a special school for both deaf and hearing children and underwent speech therapy from second to fifth grade. Also, her mother hired a tutor who taught Earhart how to sign and to say words. By the fifth grade, she mainstreamed completely and went to a public school in her hometown.

A native of Des Moines, Iowa, Earhart is the oldest of three children. At home, her mother and sister sign to her the most. Her father and brother rarely sign. She is, therefore, pleasantly surprised when male students ask her to teach them a sign or two

Earhart has "total communication" which means she can sign, read lips and speak. From a hearing person's perspective, communicating with Earhart is no different from conversing with another hearing person. Although some deaf people have trouble articulating words, Earhart speaks clearly with occasionally a muffled voice.

Throughout her life, Earhart has felt pressure from both the hearing and deaf communities. Hearing people want her to speak and read lips. The deaf community, on the other hand, does not want her to conform fully to the hearing way of life.

Despite the pressures, Earhart did not consider going to an all-deaf college such as Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. Her choices were between Duke and Rochester Institute of Technology.

"I want to learn to adapt in a hearing world, and I wanted to see if I could do it on my own," she says.

Because of the quality of interpreters in the Durham area, Earhart chose to come to Duke. Earhart currently uses two interpreters, Carol Rahn and Rod Thompson, whom the University has hired from Interpreters, Inc., a company that serves the Research Triangle area.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and The Americans With Disabilities Act enacted in 1992 require the University to provide the same educational experience for the disabled as it does for others. The law also requires the University to make necessary provisions to meet those ends.

Rahn interprets everything that is audible in the classroom, from the professor's lectures to students talking nearby. "The other students are wonderful, alert and polite. They've made things more readily accessible," she says.

Trinity freshman Liz Lepanto was in her fall semester calculus class in which an interpreter stood at the right side of the chalkboard.

"I forget that [the interpreter is] there, but sometimes I end up watching [the interpreter] instead of Dr. Lewis Blake," she says.

Blake, assistant professor of mathematics, has had a deaf student in his class before, but not one requiring an interpreter.

"It took me a little time to adjust to a person standing in the corner next to me. I was distracted in the beginning, but like the students, it passed," Blake says.

To adapt to the hearing world, Earhart relies on many gadgets. Because Earhart cannot hear the movies that play on campus, she spends her weekends watching closed-captioned television in her dormitory room.

She has two alarm clocks. One vibrates under her pillow, and the other is attached to her dorm lamps so they can flash. Other flashing devices include a University-installed fire alarm and a special telephone. Earhart uses a phone called a Telecommunications Device for the Deaf, which allows deaf people to read and type conversations on a screen.

Hearing people who do not have the phone device can still communicate with Earhart on the phone through a relay operator. But this process can be tedious.

Trinity freshman Katie McGrath often talks to Earhart through the relay system. "Whenever she calls to talk, we usually end up setting up a time to meet," McGrath says.

Earhart's roommate, Engineering freshman Michelle Showers, is not bothered by the various devices in their room, and she says that living with Earhart is no different than living with anyone else. "It's neat, actually, to learn what different things do," Showers says.

Earhart points out that Sue Wasiolek, dean of student development, was instrumental in easing her transition to college.

"My role is to explain to students with special needs what the University will provide," Wasiolek says.

One of the most important goals Earhart has set for herself is to teach the University community about deaf people. "I want to teach people `don't be afraid.' You can talk to me I just can't hear," she says. Earhart hopes eventually to organize a sign language class on campus.

Although Earhart has only been a student for one semester, she has gained many friends and fans.

"She's kind of amazing. When she has trouble, she keeps going and trying harder. It's commendable," Lepanto says.

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