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Amy Signs

A Mother, Her Daughter, and their Stories

Rebecca Willman Gernon and Amy Willman

Publication Year: 2012

“Thirty-seven years ago, I vowed to write a truthful book about raising a deaf child.” Rebecca Willman Gernon followed through on her promise with her deaf daughter Amy Willman in this extraordinary new narrative. Many stories have been told about a parent’s struggle to help her deaf child succeed in a mostly hearing world. Amy Signs marks a signature departure in that both Rebecca and Amy relate their perspectives on their journey together. When she learns of 11-month-old Amy’s deafness in 1969, Rebecca fully expresses her anguish, and traces all of the difficulties she endured in trying to find the right educational environment for Amy. The sacrifices of the rest of her family weighed heavily on her, also. When she resolved to place four-year-old Amy in Nebraska’s residential school for deaf students, the emotional toll seemed too much to bear. Amy’s view acts as the perfect counterpoint. Interwoven with her mother’s story, Amy’s account confirms that signing served her best. She summarizes life in boarding school as “laughter and homesickness.” She laughed with all of her deaf friends, though felt homesick at times. Amy thanks her mother for the gift of sign, asserting that a mainstream education would never have led her to earn a master’s degree and later teach ASL at the University of Nebraska. Amy Signs is a positive albeit cautionary tale for parents of deaf children today whose only choice is a mainstreamed education.

Published by: Gallaudet University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. ix-x

When I asked Amy if she wanted to thank anyone on our acknowledgment page she said, “No, I did all the work myself. No one helped me.” Even so, she owes a debt of gratitude to her godmother Marge Beatty who was her excellent preschool Deaf educator...

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pp. xi-xiv

Thirty-seven years ago, after reading a book about one family’s struggle with their deaf son, a story that seemed unrealistic and sugarcoated, I vowed to write a truthful book about raising a deaf child. The book would be filled with disappointment and pain...

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1. December 1969

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pp. 1-8

An anxious sigh escapes my lips. In the cold December air, my warm breath is a small cloud that soon vanishes; my concerns do not. I remove my daughter, Amy, from her car seat, position her on my left hip and trudge through ankle-deep snow toward the doctor’s...

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2. Day Two and Beyond: Waiting

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pp. 9-16

As I replace the cereal box on the lazy-susan shelf, I hear the rhythmic sound of Amy shaking her crib rail in an effort to release the locked side of the crib. “Amy’s awake. Keep eating while I get your sister dressed.” I shuffle toward their bedroom...

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3. Date with Destiny

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pp. 17-25

Packing the paraphernalia that two toddlers require for a trip demands organization, a skill I possess, and patience, a skill I don’t have this morning. I want this trip to be perfect. I must do everything right, because everything about the visit to...

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4. Stunned and Numb

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pp. 26-34

The next day after Amy’s second hearing test is completed, the graduate student ushers Amy and me into Dr. Zimmer’s office and leaves. I’m thankful she did not close the door to this stifling, cluttered place. Once again I jam myself into the student...

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5. Stomaching the Diagnosis

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pp. 35-41

The next day, three hours after telling my parents good-bye, I arrive home and turn on Sesame Street for John and Amy. My throat is clogged with a lump of tension. I want to crash into bed and hide under the covers, but my life does not give me the luxury of...

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6. The Mechanical Tyrant

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pp. 42-49

The following week, John, Amy, and I travel to Beatrice where Amy receives her hearing aid on my twenty-fifth birthday. What a gift. Within a week, Amy has become accustomed to the small foreign object in her ear. She wears her hearing aid all...

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7. Starting the Climb

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pp. 50-55

The next morning I scan the telephone directory for agencies serving the hearing impaired. Grand Island, a town of 25,000, is the third largest city in Nebraska. If there are any services outstate, they’ll be here. Midway through the list of schools...

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8. Twenty Minutes of Torture

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pp. 56-60

At ten-thirty Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, Amy has language therapy with Charmaine, the speech and language therapist at Connell School whom I observed through the one-way mirror weeks ago. Today is Friday, Amy’s twelfth session. I thought...

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9. Gibberish

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pp. 61-64

“Yesterday was the first time. I thought it was a fluke, but she’s done it several times today. It’s not much, but it’s a start. I’ve done the first John Tracy lesson every day for more than a month. Yesterday, when I put her hand to my throat and spoke, like I’ve done...

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10. Pavlov’s Daughter

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pp. 65-68

Today, my lofty goal is to have Amy vocalize to obtain food. My stomach tightens as I set plates of food in front of Jack, John, and me. Amy’s plate is empty. I hold a piece of chicken near her. “Amy, say ‘buh.’” For two minutes I repeat my plea. My food grows...

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11. Hard Lessons

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pp. 69-70

The next three months are filled with the same exhausting routine. At home, I’ve mastered the art of multi-tasking, long before it became a buzzword. While in the observation room, John and I read books, do puzzles, and play games. This is our special...

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12. Gain and Loss

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pp. 71-78

Amy has worn her “ears,” as we call her hearing aids, for six months. The squealing demon has the power to make or break my hectic schedule. I can tolerate an occasional squeal, which occurs when Amy turns her head, but a long piercing squeal sends...

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13. The Scarlet Letter

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pp. 79-82

Dr. Shin prepares a bowl of warm water and plunges a bulb syringe, which reminds me of a turkey baster, into the solution. He gently squeezes the water into Amy’s ear and clumps of horrible looking gunk washes out...

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14. Blessings and Fellow Travelers

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pp. 83-91

“I’m sure you feel Amy isn’t making any progress,” Charmaine says, “but that’s not true. She vocalizes all the sounds needed to speak every word in the English language. She comprehends more words than she speaks, and she understands the connection...

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15. Terrible Twos

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pp. 92-94

I return to my ironing, but before I can finish the next shirt, John alerts me to an overflowing toilet. “What next?” I mumble as I rush toward the bathroom. I know who is responsible for this, Amy. I’m trying to toilet train her, without much success. Her solution...

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16. Miles and Moments

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pp. 95-103

On the first Monday in June, at three forty-five, I drive into our garage having completed my first two-hundred mile round trip to Lincoln for Amy’s language therapy. I arch my back and rub my neck to relieve tight muscles. One down, twenty-six more...

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17. Respite and Renewal

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pp. 104-109

The longest day of summer was two months ago, but my days defy the laws of nature; they have increased in length. Since the university is on hiatus, my days seem endless. I have the luxury of being a stay-at-home mom who actually stays at home, and...

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18. On the Road Again

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pp. 110-115

It’s Monday, September 20, and John, Amy, and I are on our way to Lincoln. During my six-week reprieve from taking Amy to therapy, by adding sign language to my verbal queries Amy now understands, “Do you need to use the...

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19. Ready, Aim . . .

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pp. 116-122

Sunday as we dress for church, I pray the pastor’s sermon will contain words of wisdom giving me the courage to confront Dr. Zimmer. A sermon about Daniel in the lion’s den or those three guys in the fiery furnace would be nice. The pastor’s sermon...

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20. Dreams and Reality

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pp. 123-132

By the time I arrive home, my head throbs. I only want to soak in a hot bath with a good book, but that will have to wait until the children are in bed. When Jack comes home, I pop garlic bread under the broiler. “Supper will be ready...

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21. Pets and Playmates

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pp. 133-136

My earliest memories include animals. When I was about three, Mother bought my brother and me a cream-colored rabbit for a pet. I expected the rabbit to play with a ball, but of course there is no way a rabbit can fetch a ball. Sometimes we were rough...

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22. Hearing in a Deaf World

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pp. 137-146

The year 1971 slides away without fanfare. Amy has private therapy two mornings and group two afternoons a week. Three new deaf children, two boys and a girl, will soon join Amy and Teena. I’m anxious to meet them and their parents. Amy is now...

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23. Summer Workshop Times Two

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pp. 147-163

Yesterday, Amy completed her first year of therapy with Marge and can now speak, lipread, and sign many words. Her spoken vocabulary has more than one hundred words, far less than a hearing child her age, who would speak approximately nine...

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24. Emptying the Nest

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pp. 164-170

On August 27, John started first grade. Amy and I dropped him off at 8:15 a.m. with the promise we’d return at 3:30 p.m. Jack and I decided to have him attend Trinity Lutheran, which is across town, rather than the public school two blocks from our home...

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25. The Year with Few Memories

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pp. 171-173

The school year is almost over; it’s been a blur of vague, isolated memories. I have functioned on autopilot for nine months. Today I told Jack: “In two weeks Amy will be home for the summer. I never thought I’d live this long.” These words...

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26. Residential Life in the Primary Dorm

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pp. 174-181

Mother and I attended the NSD Summer Workshop for parents and deaf children when I was three, and again when I was four years old, but I don’t remember that. Nor do I remember my first day of school at NSD, when I was only four-and-one-half years...

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27. Smooth Roads

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pp. 182-191

Preparing Amy for school her second year was emotionally more difficult than her first, because we both knew what packing the blue trunk meant. After Amy returned to NSD, I return to my monotonous routine. For the past six weeks, after...

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28. Education, the Primary Years

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pp. 192-196

When I was in Prep II, which is similar to kindergarten, I had the sweetest teacher named Mrs. Kathleen. She was so caring and taught my class many funny and interesting things. She used total communication, a teaching method that uses signing...

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29. Moving into Deaf Culture

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pp. 197-201

In June, Amy is ready to come home when I arrive at her dorm. She hugs her friends good-bye with promises of “see you next fall.” Amy’s almost as tall as I am. In the past two years her wispy hair has become thicker, but what really amazes me is that...

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30. Caution, Speed Bumps Ahead

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pp. 202-206

Amy considers herself a big girl now, since she’s in the fourth grade, her last year in the primary dorm. All the children who had therapy with her at Connell are now at NSD. Teena’s in third grade, Linsay’s in fourth grade with Amy, Jeannie’s in...

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31. Mainstreaming, Not for Me

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pp. 207-208

You might wonder why I did not want to be mainstreamed at a public school in Grand Island. My parents sent me to NSD, a residential school, when I was four years old, which was the best thing for me. It is something I would have chosen for myself...

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32. The Decision

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pp. 209-213

Mr. Allen and two dozen parents attend the March school board meeting. The board members sit around a table in padded chairs, while we parents sit in wooden chairs that line the walls. Mr. Diller, the school board president, calls the meeting...

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33. Deaf Child in a Hearing World

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pp. 214-218

Since I was athletic as a child and liked to do stunts and dance, Mother enrolled me in a dance class on Friday evening. After she picked me up from school or the airport, I hurried to change my clothes and put on my purple dance leotard. I was the...

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34. Tossed and Blown by Life

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pp. 219-224

June 3, 1980. The day is hot and sultry. In three days Amy will be home for the summer. After supper, John and I grab tennis racquets and I drive to a nearby park. After three games, we are tired and sweaty. It’s only 8:30 p.m., but dark clouds...

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35. Middle School

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pp. 225-229

By the time I reached middle school, I started to enjoy my time at the dorm and my involvement in sports. I was less and less homesick. At home were all my possessions and I missed some of them, but I felt they were safer at home. I never gave much...

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36. Gaining Independence

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pp. 230-235

I want a close relationship with Amy, but our inability to communicate on an equal basis makes this difficult. One way we can share time together without communication being an issue is playing games. Amy enjoys both indoor and outdoor...

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37. Do You Sign?

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pp. 236-242

Do I use lipreading? Sometimes, but I try not to because I may misunderstand the communication. I only use lipreading during a conversation that does not require much communication or does not affect my life. When ordering food, I may...

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38. Driving Miss Daisy Crazy

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pp. 243-251

On January 23, 1982, Amy joined millions of other kids as a teenager. We celebrate with homemade pizza and rented movies, selecting two with closed captions. Two weeks later, John is fifteen, old enough to obtain a learner’s permit, but he has no...

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39. More Audism

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pp. 252-254

A major ramification of Amy’s deafness is that she misses out on thousands of hours of peripheral conversations, not only the ones John and I have, but also most of the conversations in the hearing world. John has gained a lot of knowledge indirectly...

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40. Stateside Travel

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pp. 255-259

Later this summer we took a vacation to Yellowstone and nearby sites. When driving someplace, John and I easily discuss what we want to eat, when to stop, and what we notice outside. It’s difficult but not impossible to include Amy in our conversation...

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41. Plans in Turmoil

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pp. 260-264

For years, Amy has spent more time at school than she does at home. I’m happy she does not cry or complain when her worn blue trunk is brought up from the basement each August. I loved going to school, so I understand why she’s excited to return...

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42. Europe and Beyond

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pp. 265-268

Armed with maps, guidebooks, cameras, and a calculator for determining the value of foreign currency, we are prepared for anything as we take out seats on the tour bus. John and Amy banked their spending money with me, and Amy keeps a meticulous...

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43. Making Memories,High School

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pp. 269-273

During my four years in high school, I spent less and less time at the dormitory, because I was involved in many activities and sports. These activities gave me good reasons to get away from the house parents and their unnecessary rules. I kept busy...

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44. Last Chances

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pp. 274-276

Amy’s volleyball and basketball games are on Thursday night, not a good day for me to do six hours of driving after working all day, so I never saw her play a game. I feel guilty. NSD plays small schools in the Omaha area, as well as the residential...

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45. The Big Question

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pp. 277-280

I love movies, and like many other movie buffs, memorable dialogue is incorporated into my everyday speech. One of my favorite lines was spoken by the little rabbit, Thumper, in Bambi. “If ya can’t say nothin’ nice, don’t say nothing at all.” Long ago I adapted...

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46. Graduation and College Bound

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pp. 281-286

After starting school at sixteen months, seventeen years later Amy is finally receiving recognition for all her hard work. Not only is she valedictorian of her class, but she also receives several special awards and scholarships. During the course...

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47. Gallaudet, New Horizons

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pp. 287-290

After I graduated from high school, I went to Gallaudet as a freshman. My five years of being a Gallaudet student were some of my best times, and I am grateful that NSD teachers and staff told me to go there. Later in life I met deaf people who...

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48. No Choice, Mainstreamed in 1994

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pp. 291-294

I was not mainstreamed in my early school years, but I was when I was a student at Western Maryland College and at the University of Maryland. I attended these colleges while working on my master’s degree. Both are regular colleges, primarily...

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49. Deaf in the Hearing World

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pp. 295-299

Many people wonder what it’s like to be deaf. Are Deaf people hiding inside their homes to avoid hearing society? What can they do to make their life interesting and amusing? Perhaps hearing people think that deaf people can’t really...

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50. Deaf or deaf, Does It Matter?

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pp. 300-302

Through this book you might have noticed there are two different terms: Deaf and deaf. The big D and the small d. Is this a mistake? No. Does it matter if deaf is spelled Deaf or deaf? Yes, it does. A person is defined by being either...

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51. Adapting to Live in Two Worlds: Hearing and Deaf

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pp. 303-310

For a Deaf person living in the hearing world, each day is like navigating through an asteroid belt composed of hearing people. Every day in the hearing world, we Deaf have to pass through and cross the orbits of hearing people. There is no way to avoid it. Many...

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52. My Eyes Are My Ears

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pp. 311-313

I was born with two perfect, cute little ears that should have heard the sounds around me, but my ears never heard any sounds from the day I was born. Mother said the doctor who delivered me had just come from the bowling alley and wore a navy blue...

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53. Concluding Thoughts

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pp. 314-320

Sadly, there is no deaf school in Nebraska. NSD closed in 1998. All deaf children are placed in mainstream programs now. As I reflect on my education, I know that going to a residential school gave me the opportunity to be part of many activities...

E-ISBN-13: 9781563685385
E-ISBN-10: 1563685388
Print-ISBN-13: 9781563685378
Print-ISBN-10: 156368537X

Page Count: 248
Illustrations: 25 photos
Publication Year: 2012