Breaking barriers
Gwinnett program integrates deaf, hearing students in classrooms

LILBURN - Michael Gibson is a typical teenager.

He enjoys history class, skateboarding and creating Web sites.

He's spent a lot of time recently studying for the ACT, and this weekend he competed in a regional academic competition.

But sometimes the 17-year-old encounters a frustrating situation that isn't experienced by all of his peers. Gibson is deaf, and when he speaks, sometimes people - out of fear or lack of understanding - avoid his gaze.

It's difficult, Gibson said, when people aren't so keen on trying to talk to you. If there's one thing the community should know, Gibson said it's this: Those who are deaf are people, too.

"We're just like any other person," Gibson said. "We feel the same as hearing people do. We want the same as hearing people do. We want to be accepted as equals as hearing people do."

Gwinnett County Public School's program for deaf and hard of hearing students was created in 1978, six years after the Atlanta Area School for the Deaf opened. The program is designed to challenge students to overcome their disability to become lifelong learners and to have access to all educational information and social interactions. There are more than 200 students in the program at more than 60 schools.

For students who want to be mainstreamed in a public classroom but would have trouble communicating with a teacher, the school district also offers interpretation services at three schools - Berkmar High, Berkmar Middle and Rebecca Minor Elementary. Those schools were picked because they were centrally located when the services were first offered, said Eva Parks, the district's coordinator of the deaf and hard of hearing program.

Many parents have moved to Gwinnett County because of the school system's services. Berkmar High's program, in particular, has a good reputation in the state, Parks said. The school's students have competed for five years in the Southeast Regional Deaf Academic Bowl. Berkmar's teams typically do well, and last year, county students made it to the national competition.

"The biggest difference for the students is their exposure to hearing peers at their own age level," Parks said. "At a state school, everyone's deaf. Everyone knows sign language. In a public school, the program is smaller, and the students are integrated into hearing public classrooms."

Tiffany Slieff, a senior, said she decided to transfer from the Atlanta Area School of the Deaf to Berkmar High when she was a freshman because she was looking for a challenging curriculum.

"For myself, personally, I really feel like there are so many more things offered by the curriculum here," Slieff said through an interpreter. "The teachers here are excellent. The only problem here is they don't know sign language. But there are so many more offerings in the curriculum ... and if I were to go back to the state school, it wouldn't be a challenge for me. And I like a challenge."

One of the ways Slieff has challenged herself was by participating in the Deaf Academic Bowl, which was held Friday and Saturday in Alabama. The results of that competition were not available before the printing deadline for this article.

To prepare for the competition, Slieff said students met for a couple of hours each week to practice. She was the veteran player this year, as it was her fourth competition.

Greg Owen, a teacher in the deaf and hard of hearing program and the Academic Bowl coach, said through an interpreter the competition is a big deal for Berkmar's program. Because the deaf population at the school is so small - there are just more than 20 students in the program - the school cannot afford to set up separate athletic teams for the deaf students, Owen said.

With only five years of competitive experience, Owen said Berkmar is considered to be "a baby in terms of team experience" at the Academic Bowl.

"We've earned respect from the other schools," Owen said. "They know we're the team they want to beat."

Justin Malone, a freshman, said through an interpreter he was excited to be participating in the competition for the first time this year. He said he knew a little about what to expect because he watched the regional competition last year when it was held at Berkmar. His brother and a few of his friends have also participated in the game.

The Academic Bowl isn't the only way Malone stays competitive. He's been on the football and wrestling teams, and he plans to run track this spring.

"I do like competition," Malone said through an interpreter. "The interaction is important. I've made friends, and it helps me keep up with my grades."

Parks said many people assume the deaf are not educated, but an increase in the number of deaf actors, authors and artists is bringing awareness to their community.

"Community awareness has come a long way in several years," she said.