Contributed by Debbie Clason, staff writer, Healthy Hearing
When an educational consultant approached the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry’s Office of Vocational Rehabilitation with the idea of creating a summer academy for the deaf and hard of hearing, he liked it so much he asked Russ Goddard, his coordinator of deaf and hard of hearing services, to oversee the program. That was one year ago. This summer, Penn State University hosted the first Deaf and Hard of Hearing Summer Academy, a two-week program for high school students who intend to pursue a post-secondary education.
Goddard said the program is designed to empower the state’s deaf and hard of hearing students as they make their transition from high school to college, a time when most young adults struggle with being on their own for the first time in their young lives.
“We receive a lot of students here who receive services from us while in high school and are transitioning into college. We’re finding they don’t have skills or knowledge to advocate for themselves — to get interpreters, note takers or assistive listening devices,” he said. “Our summer academy is our attempt to educate that population of deaf and hard of hearing children in skills to advocate for themselves.”
The program is a collaborative effort between the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders in the College of Health and Human Development at Penn State, the College of Education at Penn State, the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, the Bureau of Special Education in the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network within the Bureau of Special Education, and Educational Resources for Children with Hearing Loss, an advisory committee to the Bureau of Special Education. Penn State also hosts a Summer Academy for students who are blind or visually impaired.
Because most deaf and hard of hearing students have Individualized Education Plans (IEP) during elementary and secondary school to ensure they receive the programs and services they need, securing those services for themselves is foreign and daunting once they enter college.
“Just the general idea of transitioning from high school to college is already overwhelming for so many students,” Sommar Chilton, Instructor of Communication Science and Disorders, Sign Language and Deaf Culture at Penn State said. “Those who are deaf or hard of hearing are basically leaving the educational world which they have known for so long — this (college) is a whole new realm. There aren’t any teachers or parents hovering to make sure they get what they need. Technologies, self-advocacy and academics all become challenges for these students.”
Accordingly, the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Summer Academy focused on the following seven areas of instructional activities:
- Assistive technology, which teaches the students how to use the applications to communicate effectively
- Communication access options, focusing on how to use interpreters, CART services and FM systems in places outside the classroom
- Self-advocacy, self-awareness and the law, which exposes students to resources available to help them with self-advocacy skills.
- Vocational development, where the students learn interviewing skills, resume writing and set career goals
- Recreation and team building, a series of activities designed to teach leadership and communication skills as they work toward a common goal
- Financial management, focusing on how to manage checking and savings accounts, intelligently use debit and credit cards and understand their social security benefits.
- Social work, where they learn important coping mechanisms and conflict resolution skills for developing healthy relationships on campus as well as in social situations
Twenty five students were accepted into the program. They were assisted by 30 resident assistants, who were hired from a pool of 120 applicants.
“Russ and his crew did an awesome job of recruiting at a variety of college and universities to entice students in all different majors to work as resident assistants (RA) in the program,” Chilton said. “The RAs helped with logistics and activities. They had lunch, dinner and breakfast with the students every day. They were their mentors in many respects. They were really great examples of what successful college students look like.”
Goddard, who has 18 years of experience in the field of vocational rehabilitation and deafness, said overall feedback from students and parents was extremely positive. One student told the executive director the summer academy really changed her life. Another student who is hard of hearing returned to high school and requested to sit in the front of the classroom because she had hearing loss. “Self advocacy in action,” Goddard said with a laugh.
“They should be defined by their ‘cans’ instead of their ‘can’ts.'” – Sommar Chilton
But perhaps the biggest testimony came from a deaf student who had been disguising her cochlear implants at school to avoid being labeled for her hearing loss. “The deaf students welcomed her with open arms,” Goddard said. “Through her interactions with them and our staff, she opened up more and more. Her high school teacher approached me at one of their outings to a minor league baseball game and said ‘I’ve never seen her pull her hair up and show her cochlear implants.’ Today, she’s transferred from a mainstream setting to a school for the deaf to further her socialization. She’s finally aware of herself as a deaf person and has a bright future ahead of her. Hopefully, I’ll get to see her grow in the coming years as she goes to college.”
Those stories are music to Chilton’s ears, who wishes individuals would learn to accept deaf and hard of hearing students for their abilities, instead of their perceived disabilities. “It’s not about what they can’t do or what they can’t hear,” she said. “They should be defined by their ‘cans’ instead of their ‘can’ts.’ As hearing individuals, if we have the opportunity to recognize the ‘cans,’ they are endless. They can do anything they want to do.”
Plans for next summer’s academy are already underway. Chilton said she is looking forward to working with the same team of individuals and believes the program will only get better next year.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything else in the world,” Goddard said.