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


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

Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. She has known Stone since the early 1980s, and the two were pioneers as a deaf and hearing teaching team.

Gallaudet "had wanted a deaf person to work with these young kids for a long time," Erting recalled. Stone "broached the idea of really emphasizing ASL. It was ground-breaking and very challenging, but we were committed to it.

"It had a profound effect on my life," Erting said. "I could see the kids understood her better than they understood me. It was the language thing."

She asked Stone for help, because at that time even Gallaudet -- a university specifically for deaf and hard-of-hearing students -- did not offer ASL courses.

Training teachers

Stone recently completed her doctorate at Gallaudet in special-education administration. Her undergraduate degree was in art history from Gallaudet.

This year, she designed Western Maryland's new American Sign Language Specialist Program that will train people to teach ASL and study the language itself.

ASL is a language, Stone emphasized, not a word-by-word translation of English -- and it is key to the deaf-culture movement. It has its own idioms and "incorporates facial expression, mouth movements -- all parts of the body," she said.

David M. Denton, who retired after 25 years as superintendent of the Maryland School for the Deaf, knows of Stone's work and isn't surprised: He remembers her as an outstanding elementary-school student.

"I've known Rachel Stone and her family since she was a student -- since 1959," he said, when he was principal of the North Carolina School for the Deaf in Morganton.

Deaf parents an 'advantage'

Although Stone grew up in the system of oral education, he said, "she was at an advantage because she grew up in deaf culture, with deaf parents. At 4 or 5, she already knew what was going on. At that time, the children of deaf parents had a tremendous advantage."

lTC "I think it's wonderful," he said of her adult career. "Rachel is so capable, so personable,"

Soon after Denton took the job here in 1967, he asked Western Maryland to launch a deaf-education program because he was having trouble finding teachers for the deaf children. The program is a leader in the deaf-culture movement.

"Now, 31 years later, we can look back and see the impact, things that seem so basic now, using ASL in class, deaf people moving into deaf education," he said. Sign language wasn't even taught then, and it is still controversial to put so much emphasis on ASL, he said.

"Visiting Rachel Stone's class, it is the hearing students who are at a disadvantage. Twenty years ago, it was the reverse -- a lecturer who was not deaf speaking through an interpreter, a third party."

Start signing young

Stone's writings cover issues in deaf education such as ASL in the classroom, mainstreaming, and deaf-and-hearing team teaching. They emphasize the need for early intervention and developing an identity for deaf children.

Hearing parents often delay teaching ASL to their deaf baby while they seek a medical cure -- a mistake, Stone said.

"If you find you have a deaf child, start right away: Sign to your babies," she urged, regardless of what medical treatments are pursued. "Zero to 7 are the crucial years for language development."

Signing regains respect

Sign language was developed in the 19th century and was used extensively until it was driven from classrooms in 1880, Stone said. Progressives of the time thought it "too similar to dumb beasts."

"In many cities, they forbade sign language in the school systems -- but the deaf children continued to come up with sign languages on their own because it filled a need," she said. "By the 1960s, researchers found that deaf people still learned and used sign language, that it was its own language, that it could help improve English skills."

Although many schools still follow the old approach of translating spoken English, she said, ASL came back strong, beginning in the 1970s.

"It may be another 10 years, even 20 years, before we really get to where there's significant change -- the longitude studies are being done now," Stone said.

But she said studies of preschool and elementary students from 1993 to 1996 "already are finding that the deaf children [taught in ASL] are more expressive, more receptive, more assertive, more confident and less apprehensive -- and have more knowledge to show for it."

Pub Date: 5/15/98

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