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Hank Nevins: Great teacher helps students bridge gap

We all have one or two favorite teachers from our school days. One of my new favorite teachers began tutoring me a few weeks ago. And she doesn’t hear or speak.

Her name is Chrissy Heckler. She teaches American Sign Language classes at Buffalo’s Deaf Access Services (DAS) and she has taught me more with her enthusiasm, facial expressions and sign language skills in one month than most of her hearing and speaking colleagues did in years of traditional classroom instruction.

I joined Team DAS in September, part time, to assist it with government relations and special projects. My boss, Executive Director Sharon Hanson, suggested that she and I should learn the language of the people we are entrusted to help. I agreed. I’ve always been fascinated with sign language and was eager to learn more about it.

When I told family and friends that part of my training at DAS was learning sign language, the unanimous response was, “cool.”

It is cool. Very cool. And what makes it even cooler is the fact that DAS offers classes to everyone from babies to veterans. That’s right, DAS will be introducing sign language classes for babies in January. Studies show that young children adapt quickly to sign language. The agency, working with Veterans Affairs, is also addressing the needs of veterans who suffered hearing impairment or loss as a result of their military service. And DAS will launch a defensive driving program and high school equivalency classes in 2015.

For those of us in the hearing community, the daily sounds of our lives are taken for granted. But think for a moment what it must be like to not have verbal communication, the sounds of nature, traffic, radio, TV, motion pictures, you favorite music, your computer, cellphone – it’s a long list.

I am not deaf, but I am hard of hearing. That journey began long ago and far away with the constant rumble of Army howitzers and helicopters in Vietnam’s Central Highlands and continued with the nearly 40-year radio career that followed, exposing me to loud headphones and even louder rock concerts. It all took a toll.

I am addressing my hearing issues with the assistance of medical professionals and the VA. But my brief experience with these twice-weekly sign language courses has opened up a whole new world.

In 1983, a group of committed volunteers interested in the welfare of the deaf community set up Deaf Adult Services as a non-profit organization. Thirty-one years later, DAS (now Deaf Access Services) continues to serve Western New York. Staffed by deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing individuals, it provides a diverse, inclusive environment for people.

In order to bridge the communication gap between deaf and hearing communities, DAS provides informative consultations, presentations and workshops to help people feel more at ease when working with deaf individuals. The agency also has support services to ensure the rights of deaf individuals are met by providing assistance, education and advocacy. Often the services of an interpreter are mandated by law. DAS provides qualified sign language interpreters to meet this need.

As I navigate the world of deaf culture, I’m learning something new every day, thanks to Team DAS and a teacher who can’t hear or speak, but communicates better than most people who can.