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WSD students, 'You can do it'

Deaf students broadening horizons after high school

Mike Heine/The Week

(Published May 8, 2007, 2:45 p.m.)

Not long ago, a graduating senior from Wisconsin School for the Deaf would enter the post-high school world with somewhat limited options.

Basically, there was factory-type work or go to one of a handful of all deaf colleges and earn a degree that would lead them back to a deaf school as a teacher or counselor, school officials said.

Today, the door for a deaf student's opportunities has swung wide open.

Five local seniors preparing to graduate on June 14 have their eyes set on colleges and careers that only a few years ago would scarcely have seen a deaf person.

Christin Christenson of Delavan is heading to Purdue University to seek a degree in pre-law or liberal arts.

Jenny Filak of Delavan wants to attend the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, N.Y., to pursue photography or film production.

Delavan's Courtney Gunville wants to stay instate, attend UW-Milwaukee and get a philosophy or liberal arts degree.

Amanda Swanson of Lake Geneva will go to a college in Illinois or Oklahoma to become a farrier, a person who shoes horses.

Delavan's Paul Olvera, like many seniors, is still weighing his career options, but will likely attend one of two deaf colleges, Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. or NTID. He wants to attend summer leadership and literacy camps before enrolling.

"Our way of thinking is a lot different than it was in the past," Christenson said. "There are all new options now."

Like their peers at mainstream high schools, they're all a little nervous and a lot excited to take that next step. Taking it as a deaf person, though, is a bit different.

Without sound, the deaf live in a visual society where they aren't exposed to the everyday verbal conversations hearing can take advantage of, said Patti Gustafson, an office assistant and senior advisor at WSD with more than 20 years experience.

Three years ago, WSD instituted a program where seniors have regular Friday discussions with staff, former students out in the working world and business professionals to learn about life.

"They talk about things that might be touched on lightly at home that hearing kids hear about constantly," Gustafson said. "We try to broaden that experience here so they know, 'what I need to do when I graduate.'"

The special guests talk about things such as getting a checking account, how to negotiate buying a car, maintaining good credit, how to handle a funeral, maintaining relationships and other trials and challenges in adult life.

"We take that for granted. We hear it," Gustafson said. "We hear mom and dad and see them doing it. Our kids don't.

"It has made a big impact on the kids. They are not going out there looking so gullible. They have an awareness now so people can't take advantage of them."

"The teachers have told us we're lucky to have the support there is today," Olvera said. "There is a lot better preparation. We learn from their experiences, too, so we know what to expect what's next."

Deaf persons across America are playing a greater role in society in general, not just holding jobs within the deaf community, said WSD guidance counselor Leslie Eldred, who herself is hearing impaired.

"Their disability is not a major factor any longer," Eldred said, saying that since the Americans with Disabilities Act deaf persons can get an education to become whatever they want.

"There are more majors and more choices that they're working in," she said. "A lot of times deaf students are interested in getting back to the deaf community, becoming teachers.

"Now, there are a lot more programs out there. There is more technology. Deaf students and professionals don't have to rely on interpreters as much anymore because they can use a natural language to make whatever contact they need when they are on a job."

WSD also has a class for seniors called "future planning" that helps them prepare for the transition into college or post-high school life. Much of the class is a reminder of what choices are available when they leave the confines of the campus.

"We've taken a more active role in helping the kids prepare and letting them know what options there are," said De Drymalski, a high school teacher and mother of two deaf sons. "It's not just Gallaudet or NTID. Nothing against them, but we want to find what meets their goals for the future."

The staff at WSD is very active in encouraging students to make the next step that's right for them.

"There are deaf teachers here and what they tell us is, 'You can do it,'" Gunville said. "You have opportunities and you have to keep your eyes open. Our deaf staff is telling us just that."


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