Article: A necessary language…Amanda-Clearcreek teacher provides signing instructions to those in need

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LANCASTER — Kendra McCormick remembers a time when she had to drive her daughter Kayla Lowry, who is deaf, to Columbus five days a week so she could receive instruction from a sign-language teacher.

But that was before Kathy Simonson came into the picture.It was 17 years ago when Simonson became the only teacher of deaf or hard-of-hearing students in the county. Today, she maintains that role, much to the relief of many students and parents like McCormick and Kayla.

“It’s so nice to be able to keep Kayla local and close to home,” said McCormick, who lives in Amanda. “She’s around other hearing-impaired children, but she’s also around her neighbors and local friends.”

“We’re lucky to have (Kathy) here in Fairfield County.”

Kayla is one of six students Simonson works with five days a week in the Amanda-Clearcreek Local School District. While Simonson teaches out of Amanda-Clearcreek’s elementary and high school, she works with hearing-impaired students from all the other schools in the area — and has worked with students from outside the county as well.

Her presence allows her students to receive specialized education in Fairfield County — rather than outside the district.

“The students have interpreters who are with them in all their classes, but they come to me for that individualized instruction,” Simonson said.

Simonson is not deaf, but she spends her days teaching sign-language and English classes to hearing-impaired elementary and high school students. She also frequently sits in on her students’ classes to provide additional assistance when necessary.

While her students are hearing-impaired, many of them are not as proficient in sign language as some might expect, she added.

“All my students are oral and can speak for themselves, and most of them prefer voicing over signing,” she said.

But students who are hard of hearing soon find they need to rely on sign language more and more as they progress in their education, Simonson said.

She said the sign-language class allows the students to not only improve their skills, but gain a foreign language credit at the same time.

For students who are hearing-impaired, learning English is difficult enough, let alone another language, Simonson said.

Student Amber McCreary, 15, said she was dreading taking Spanish.

“I think we could use (sign language) more in our daily lives than we would use Spanish,” she said. “We can relate to that language more.”

Melody Liston, whose son Garrett Hoshor, 17, is in Simonson’s class, said his sign-language skills have greatly improved in his time with Simonson.

“American Sign Language is different from English; in English, you would say, ‘the boy climbed the tree,’ but in sign language, it would be ‘tree boy climbed,'” Liston said. “So English can be tough.”

It’s for that reason that Simonson’s one-on-one instruction is especially important to her students. It has other benefits as well — not only do her students receive individualized instruction, but they have the opportunity to attend public school with students who can hear.

“The first time other kids are exposed to someone with hearing loss, they can be a bit standoffish or unsure of how to interact with that person,” Simonson said. “But all of my students, through their time in public school, have developed friendships with people who can hear.”

Simonson, who is employed through the Fairfield County Educational Service Center, said she’s always known she wanted to work with hearing-impaired students.

She remembers being inspired to do so after watching her kindergarten teacher interact with her deaf son using sign language.

“It was just fascinating to me at the time,” she said.

She moved on to obtain a bachelor’s degree in speech pathology and a master’s degree in deaf education. She started out teaching students in the Fairfield Union Local School District before eventually moving on to Amanda-Clearcreek. The switch, she said, had to do with the number of deaf students in that district.

She added she has never felt intimidated about teaching hearing-impaired students when she herself is not deaf.

“I looked at it as a challenge,” she said. “And it can be difficult; sometimes I wish I could spend one day inside their head. There were times where I felt like I had tried all the tricks in the hat but still wasn’t breaking through.”

Simonson said one of the major perks of her job is getting to watch her students grow up. She has been with several of them, such as Kayla and Garrett, since they were in elementary school.

“It’s so rewarding, getting to know these students and their interests,” she said.

Liston said it has been wonderful to have a teacher like Simonson remain with her son throughout his time in public school.

“I think (Kathy) is amazing; she is really good at what she does and she cares about the kids,” Liston said. “She is like a part of the family.”

Lancaster Eagle-Gazette Photographer Lindsay Niegelberg contributed to this article.

Michelle George can be reached at (740) 681-4342 or mgeorge@nncogannett.com.

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Marlee Matlin’s new reality show, My Deaf Family

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When Hollywood came knocking, the Firl family of Livermore opened their door and let in a film crew to document their lives for a new reality TV series.

The family was asked to do just what they normally do on a weekend. No easy task, especially when one of the Tinseltown team members in their home was Academy Award-winning actress and fledgling producer Marlee Matlin. Matlin’s production company, Solo One, selected Leslie Firl and Bridgetta Bourne-Firl and their four children to be the subject of a new show called “My Deaf Family.”

“It was hilarious,” Bourne-Firl said of the experience. “We were supposed to do things like we normally do, except with three sign language interpreters, two cameramen, one sound man and three producers, including the celebrity Marlee Matlin, following us around.”

What makes the Firl family unique is that the parents and two children are deaf, while two other children are hearing. The premise of the series is to closely examine how deaf and hearing family members get along under the same roof and interact with the outside world. Each is given screen time to show and tell of the joys and challenges of being in a family in which some members hear and some don’t.

Matlin and crew came to the Bay Area from L.A. this past January and shot 16 hours of footage. The cameras followed the Firls to a basketball tournament at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont, where Bridgetta works as the outreach department director and Leslie is a high school teacher.

As well as being behind the camera, Matlin also is on screen, serving as an interviewer, asking questions and joining in on activities. A pilot episode has been shown to network TV executives and is posted on YouTube.

At this time, no network has picked up the show, but Matlin is hoping that by posting the pilot on the Web, enough enthusiastic Web viewers (more than 90,000 at this writing) will influence a TV broadcaster to add the show to the network’s roster.

When asked why they were willing to have their lives exposed to thousands or possibly millions of viewers, Bourne-Firl said, “It’s the magnitude of awareness that may happen. In my work, I have been among the first deaf adults whom hearing parents with newly identified deaf or hard-of-hearing babies have ever met. But if they were to see my deaf children, Sabrina and Gideon, they would then know that there’s really nothing their deaf children cannot do.

“We hope to show the world the reality of our lives. We’re as normal as our neighbors, except that we are bilingual, using American Sign Language and written/spoken English at home.”

The nine-minute pilot can be viewed at www.youtube.com/mydeaffamily.