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THE QUIET CLASSROOM : Deaf Teachers : Their opportunities are subject to debate.


Do deaf and hearing-impaired teachers get a fair shake in public schools? School administrators insist that they do. In the deaf community, the answers vary.

"I feel that administrators are very hesitant to hire someone who they feel they cannot directly communicate with," said Coleen Ashly, advocacy specialist for the Greater Los Angeles Council on Deafness.

"There are additional costs involved when you hire a hearing-impaired teacher," she said, noting that interpreter services are often needed for meetings and other occasions. "They look at that, because that's what administrators do. They look at dollars."

GLAD, a private, nonprofit organization that runs largely on state funding, opened its Ventura office in July, 1989. It provides advice, interpreter services and advocacy for the hearing-impaired.

Since her arrival, Ashly has become a fixture at the twice-monthly meetings of the Ventura Unified School District, which runs programs for most of the west county's younger hearing-impaired students. During her time in Ventura, Ashly said, she has never "received a call, never received a letter" from a public school seeking a hearing-impaired teacher. Lawrence Fleischer, coordinator of the deaf studies program at Cal State Northridge, takes a milder view.

"They are looking for deaf instructors, definitely, but the problem is supply and demand," Fleischer said.

Fleischer noted that Cal State Northridge, which serves more hearing-impaired students than any college west of the Mississippi, graduated just four hearing-impaired students with teaching credentials last spring. He doesn't know where they landed.

"I think school districts are following the changes in the times," Fleischer said. "There are possibly school districts out there that are more resistant. . . . But that will change in time."

One group with a strong interest in the issue is the small corps of hearing-impaired teachers who, for one reason or another, work with students who are not hearing-impaired. Officials count two such teachers in this county.

One is Gary Vale, who wears two hearing aids but teaches chemistry and biology, without an interpreter, to mainstream students at Simi Valley High School. Vale, a veteran of 15 years of teaching hearing-impaired students, chose years ago to move into mainstream teaching.

The other is Kathryn Thomas, who teaches disabled youngsters at Nueva Vista School in Oxnard.

"I feel that the school districts prefer hearing-impaired teachers who can talk," said Thomas, whose Nueva Vista classroom includes nine developmentally disabled students. "I can talk, but not as well as other deaf people who are highly skilled talkers."

Thomas came down with spinal meningitis at age 2 1/2 and diagnosed her own deafness. Her parents, she said, still recall the day she approached her mother and said, "Mama, my ears are broke."

Thomas attended Cal State Northridge, specialized in education, and moved to Ventura County because she didn't want to live in Los Angeles. She spent two years at Camarillo State Hospital, teaching vocational skills and day-to-day living skills to deaf and developmentally disabled patients. After that, she was ready to move to a hearing-impaired classroom, she said, but found no jobs available.

Instead, Thomas moved to her current job in Oxnard, teaching basic and vocational skills to developmentally disabled students ages 13 to 21, some of whom are nonverbal. She has been there for seven years, teaching through an interpreter, though some students understand a limited amount of sign language.

Some parents, she acknowledged, "are resistant. They're not sure I can do the job." But most have been won over, she said, and her principal has always backed her up.

For the past two years, she has been looking for a job with hearing-impaired students. One of her prime motivations, she said, is her memory of the only hearing-impaired teacher she had as a child, and the effect he had as a role model.

"If not for him," said Thomas, "I would have felt very differently."

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