SIDNEY — There’s something unnerving about standing in an auditorium full of deaf students. At the podium, a speaker addresses her audience using only hand gestures, while an interpreter quietly speaks the words into a microphone for the benefit of the few present capable of hearing them.
There’s chatter going on among the kids in the bleachers; quite a lot. But again, it’s all in sign language and of little use to the uninitiated hearing person.
It’s easy for that hearing person to feel cut out, isolated, alone in the crowd. The experience is, in essence, a small taste of what the deaf deal with on a daily basis while navigating the hearing world.
This is why an event like Deaf Pride Day, held Friday at Montcalm Community College in Sidney, is so vitally important not only to members of the area’s deaf community, but to anyone seeking a better understanding of what life is like for the hearing impaired.
Deaf Pride Day is the brainchild of Central Montcalm High School teacher Diane Basom, who works there with hearing impaired students.
“I started it in 1994 because I wanted to give my deaf students a chance to meet with other deaf students,” Basom said. “There were only three schools that attended that first year.”
Since then, the event has had its up and downs, but for the most part has grown steadily over the years. This year’s Deaf Pride Day brought in about 100 students from eight school districts. The busiest year saw 300 students from 20 school districts.
Basom blames a faltering economy and budget cuts on this year’s decline.
“The schools just can’t afford as many field trips,” she said. “Still, we want to make sure our students get to hang out with as many other deaf kids as possible. It’s a wonderful opportunity for them to experience the deaf culture and communicate with other deaf kids.”
In many cases, kids who attend Deaf Pride Day come from schools at which they are the lone deaf student. The chance to mingle and communicate freely with so many of their peers at one time is a luxury impossible to put a price tag on.
“Too often, these kids come from schools where they have no one else like them that they can identify with,” Basom explained. “This provides them with that opportunity. Here they can be hanging in the gym or swimming or dancing with their friends and it will be all deaf kids. The communication is free, open and easy; a real benefit.”
Melani Huntoon, a Blanchard mother with five children, two of whom are deaf, has been attending Deaf Pride Day with her children for five years. The event is something they all look forward to for weeks in advance.
“They do a day-by-day countdown for over a month when Deaf Pride is coming,” Huntoon said. “They jump on my back, they’re so excited, and say, ‘Deaf Pride is tomorrow! Deaf Pride is tomorrow!’
“They don’t get a chance, as much as we’d like them to, to interact with other deaf kids,” she said. “That’s why this is so great.”
The many teachers and facilitators who work with the deaf, also sing the praises of the program. Allie Cecil, a recent Lansing Community College graduate now working with deaf children for the Montcalm Area Intermediate School District (MAISD), describes the job, and the event, as very rewarding.
“I picked signing as a second language credit in high school,” Cecil said. “I was just fascinated by it. I went to LCC because their (deaf) program has the highest rating in the state. I was hired through MAISD the week of graduation. I’m a newbie.”
Cecil’s typical day consists of working with five deaf students attending school in mainstream classes. The efforts of instructors such as herself help make such mainstreaming of deaf students a possibility and opens doors to them that may have been closed to hearing impaired children of earlier generations.
For Basom, providing opportunities to deaf and hearing impaired kids is simply the right thing to do.
“I had many deaf family members,” Basom said. “So, I grew up knowing sign language. Working with the deaf later on just sort of came naturally.
“Deaf Pride gives these kids a wonderful chance to have fun with other deaf kids. It’s important.”
In addition to Deaf Pride Day in the autumn, Basom also organizes Deaf Games Day each spring.
“This gives them two Deaf Pride events every year,” Basom said.
Watching the excited blur of hands as the students conversed in the gym, lunchroom and at the dance with others who — blessedly and for once — understand what they’re saying, it’s hard not to appreciate the efforts of Basom and all the others who make Deaf Pride Day possible.