Professor has leading role in deaf signing revolution Pioneer develops master's program

May 15, 1998|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

When Western Maryland College launches the first deaf-education master's degree emphasizing American Sign Language this summer, Rachel E. Stone will be leading the way -- as she has for most of her life.

A notable student even in elementary school, Stone became the first deaf professor at the Westminster college, which has the world's largest graduate program for training teachers of the deaf.

Stone, 48, is an example of the revolution in deaf education that has occurred in her lifetime -- changes reflected in her career.

An activist for years in the deaf-culture movement, she rejects the medical approach and such traditions as lip-reading in favor of celebrating the deaf as a unique group with its own language -- ASL.

At Western Maryland College, she has been encouraged to pursue her dreams since she joined the faculty in fall 1996.

"It's a very exciting time to be here," said Stone, who teaches exclusively in sign language and answered questions through an interpreter and in written English.

ASL is the "native language" of the deaf, said Stone, who developed unusually high communication skills as a child because she was born deaf to deaf parents, unlike the 90 percent of deaf students who have hearing parents. Two of her three children are deaf.

Communication skills

These communication skills are apparent as she and her students, especially those who are deaf, use the rapid hand gestures, facial expressions and body language that make up American Sign Language.

Although all her classes are taught in sign language, interpreters are available for the hearing students -- until the final two courses.

Heather Reynolds, 28, of Endicott, N.Y., a hearing student in Stone's first-year class, was enthusiastic about her professor at a recent evening class, but she said she would be lost without the interpreter.

"I need the interpreter for specific words, like 'behavior modification' or 'teaching assessment' or 'lesson plan,' " said Reynolds.

At a recent evening class, Stone was teaching about lesson plans -- "Be flexible, plan ahead, keep it simple" -- to 15 students ranging in age from 22 to 45, about half of them deaf.

The content wasn't unusual, but the context was.

Chairs were rearranged before class to ring the wall because seeing this professor is essential. The flick of a light switch announced the start of class.

As Stone signed her instructions and answered questions, the room was so quiet that comments could be heard from a class across the hall.

Two interpreters softly relayed Stone's lesson to the hearing students.

"Rachel Stone is the fastest signer I've ever had," Reynolds said after the class. "I can get it if she says, 'The tree is blue' -- then I'm OK. I'm at about a 10-year-old's vocabulary."

No speaking

The final two courses in the deaf-education program are taught in ASL only -- no interpreters -- and require a high level of proficiency.

In this last class, even the hearing students don't speak. They practice teaching -- and keeping classroom discipline -- in preparation for 10 weeks as student teachers.

Last year in that class, Stone assigned most of the students to act like children -- and they relished the roles. Two started a fight; a group played with a floating feather; one snipped another's hair, and all over the room there were animated but silent conversations in ASL.

Rather than rapping a stick or calling for order, the student teachers used gestures and touch to focus attention, communicating one on one and conveying disapproval that led to at least one misbehaving student being seated by the door.

Stone was testing the mettle of three soon-to-be teachers. Each tried to gain control of the class as she gave a thorough lesson -- one on ancient Greece, another in geometry and the last on the human body. Stone's primary criticism of all three was that they were too thorough -- attempting to teach too much at once.

Pathological condition

When Stone was earning her master's degree in deaf education at Western Maryland College 20 years ago, she recalled, there were interpreters between her and the speaking teachers.

Deafness was seen primarily as a pathological condition to be fixed, and her courses reflected that view, she said.

"I had to learn all of these things about 'Why deaf students can't read well and write well,' about 'The ear and how it works' -- all of these 'problems.'

"The teachers didn't sign, and there was nothing about deaf culture -- just how to 'fix the problem.' It was very negative."

Since then, Stone said, the movement for self-determination and civil rights has led to a perception that deafness is not a condition to be fixed, but a minority culture with its own language and identity to celebrate.

Those who have known her over the years said they aren't surprised to find Stone where she is today.

"Rachel's always been sort of a ground-breaking individual," said Lynne Erting, now supervisor of the preschool program at

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