At 54, deaf woman earns her high school diploma


Columbia grandmother Barbara Kleinhen earns her high school diploma today, after years of preaching to her children about the importance of finishing school.

Ms. Kleinhen, a 54-year-old postal worker who is deaf, dropped out of high school almost 40 years ago. But with the help of a sign language interpreter who attended adult education classes with her, she was able to pass all of her tests to earn a diploma through the General Educational Development (GED) program.

She's one of more than 30 nontraditional students who will graduate from Howard Community College's adult education program at a ceremony at Smith Theatre. She's the first hearing disabled student to complete the college's GED program.

"Now I'm thinking the next step is to go to college," Ms. Kleinhen said through her sign language interpreter. "Maybe I'll take it slow and take one course. I want to study accounting because I've always loved bookkeeping."

Ms. Kleinhen grew up in an era when there were few sign interpreters and no laws such as the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandates equal and adequate access to education and public facilities for disabled people.

In school, Ms. Kleinhen had to learn by lip-reading.

"It was awfully hard for me because at that time, there were no interpreters and I was the only deaf student," she said. "Trying to read lips was hard."

Schoolwork became so difficult that she dropped out before her senior year. A native of Cleveland, she found work as a bookkeeper, got married and reared two children. After a divorce, Ms. Kleinhen said, she moved to Columbia about 1980 to start fresh.

"All the time, I thought about school," she said. "I thought, 'Gee, my kids have finished high school. A friend of mine has finished her Ph.D.' "

To earn her diploma, Ms. Kleinhen attended a three-month class and took a seven-hour multiple choice exam designed to test the skills that a four-year high school student would have learned.

She failed the test twice because she did not pass the writing portion, a 200-word persuasive essay. She said she got discouraged, but her family and friends urged her to keep trying.

"Deaf people really have a difficult time with English and writing," Ms. Kleinhen said. "If you never hear the language, you don't have the skills of hearing people. When it comes to writing it and composing it, I have the most difficulty."

The third time a letter arrived with her test results, she was nervous and afraid of another disappointment. "I left it on the breakfast table and I wouldn't open it," she said. "I kept eyeing it."

She smiled as she described how she she made two fists and pumped them triumphantly in the air after opening the letter.

Ms. Kleinhen is not alone in having to overcome difficulties in her life to earn her diploma. Each graduate has a different tale of struggles and second chances. One middle-aged woman returned 20 years after dropping out of high school just months before her graduation. She's earning her diploma the same year her son graduates from high school.

"I think that anybody who decides to come back to school and makes a commitment to get the credentials deserves all the accolades in the world, because it's a difficult task," said Patty Keeton, director of HCC's basic skills office and foreign-born programs.

"In Barbara's case, she had different dilemmas and difficult challenges. She just took them head-on. We were thrilled to help her take on the challenge."

Ms. Kleinhen's family is equally thrilled.

"She had a lot of perseverance to keep on taking it," her daughter, Debbie LaSalle, said in a phone interview from Jessup, Ga. "She's very smart, very strong-willed. "

Ms. Kleinhen said her experience bolsters her belief that deaf people can do anything but hear, as I. King Jordan, Gallaudet University's first deaf president put it.

"Deaf people can do anything if they're determined people," she said. "I would really like to see all deaf people get their GED. I know many have not finished high school, and they would like to go back to school.

"Don't give up," she said. "All it takes is determination. That's all -- determination."

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