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Born Deaf in El Salvador, Mauricio Escobar-Gallegos's Native Language is Illustration
He has come a long way in the three years since he first walked into a U.S. classroom at Frost Middle School in Fairfax County -- then Northern Virginia's only school system offering a classroom program for the deaf. "He was frozen when he met us. He couldn't give his name. All he knew was it started with an M," said classmate Sara Khan, 16, speaking through a sign language interpreter.
Education Worth 1,000 Words
Va. Teen Among Deaf Youths Learning What Homelands Couldn't Teach
By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 2, 2006; B01


Mauricio Escobar-Gallegos's native language is illustration.

With a teenage boy's imagination, he spins tales of spaceships and big, black monsters -- all with a pen and pencil. He draws frame after frame of stick figures getting pies flung in their faces or careering down mountains into banks of snow.

Born deaf in El Salvador 16 years ago, Mauricio never heard the Spanish spoken around him, and no one taught him sign language. He learned how to communicate by sketches and gestures.

As a student in a class for the deaf at Heritage High School in Leesburg, he is just now getting the hang of American Sign Language. Finally, with the help of his teacher, he is able to fill in the white space beneath his pictures. He explains the story to his teacher in sign language, and she writes the English words on the pages.

He has come a long way in the three years since he first walked into a U.S. classroom at Frost Middle School in Fairfax County -- then Northern Virginia's only school system offering a classroom program for the deaf.

"He was frozen when he met us. He couldn't give his name. All he knew was it started with an M," said classmate Sara Khan, 16, speaking through a sign language interpreter. Khan came from Pakistan six years ago and entered the Frost program able to lip-read or understand only a few words in Urdu and English. She, too, attends Heritage High School.

Families with deaf or hard-of-hearing children often migrate to the Washington area from around the world to live in the shadow of Gallaudet University and enroll their children in special education programs in nearby school districts. In Montgomery County, 26 percent of the deaf students are first- or second-generation immigrants, and in Fairfax County, seven of the 57 deaf students in a magnet program at W.T. Woodson High School were born in other countries.

In Loudoun County, the deaf education program at Heritage has four students, all foreign-born.

Sara and Mauricio's classmates are from India and Peru. As a Latino, Mauricio is part of the country's largest group of foreign-born deaf students. According to an annual survey conducted by Gallaudet, 24 percent of deaf students are Hispanic. In the Western states, Hispanics make up 40 percent of the deaf student population.

No one knows why the number of deaf Latinos in the United States is so high, said Barbara Gerner de Garcia, a professor in the Department of Educational Foundations and Research at Gallaudet. Potential reasons, she suggested, are the prevalence of immigration from Latin America and the relatively high incidence of hereditary deafness among such groups as Puerto Ricans.

Although growing numbers of deaf students are arriving in U.S. schools from abroad, few teachers have the training to work with them or their families, Gerner de Garcia said.

To help, she created an online class for teachers who work with Latino children who might know only Spanish or non-American sign language, or who might not know any language because they lacked access to special education or hearing aids in their home countries.

"If deaf children don't have access to language in the first five years, the impact -- you can never overcome that completely," Gerner de Garcia said.

At Heritage High, two full-time teachers, two full-time sign-language interpreters and a part-time speech pathologist concentrate on helping the four students communicate -- at a cost well above the $19,000 average per-pupil expenditure for special education students.

Mauricio's teachers and family members said that before he came to the United States, he attended school with children who had many different disabilities. He spent his days drawing pictures and copying long lists of Spanish words. He developed neat and even handwriting but never learned what any of the words meant, his family said.

His first year in a U.S. school was a challenge. Following a schedule confused him, and his teachers and family said he protested with loud, guttural shouts.

"He was so frustrated because he had no way to get through to the world. . . . He had no way to say, 'Where is everyone going?' or 'Will I be safe when I get there?' " said Lorraine Stewart, a teacher of the deaf who has worked with Mauricio for the past two years.

After a few months, Mauricio quieted down and started talking with his hands.

"He went through the typical development that a deaf child goes through but just much, much later," Stewart said. First he mimicked the signs she made without necessarily understanding them. Then he learned a few signs with broad meanings, such as "drink" and "eat." Gradually, as he learned more, he began asking what the sign was for everything he saw. "He was really hungry for knowledge," Stewart said.

Now, he commands a large enough vocabulary to relate some events of his life. With the help of an interpreter, he described the earthquake that struck El Salvador in 2001: "The table started shaking. The walls were moving. I looked up. The lights were swinging. We had to crouch down. . . . I was playing a game in the house. My sister was playing basketball. Mom -- where?"

He is also beginning to learn how to write in English.

His teachers call his progress "amazing," even though his sentences often start in the middle or tumble out as streams of nouns. They say he has a difficult time understanding abstract concepts. He can't answer "why" questions or comprehend things he cannot see or touch.

"He understands that that's a chair, but if you ask him if he's deaf or hearing, he does not know. He doesn't really understand what that means," his teacher Karen Cassidy said.

By midafternoon, Mauricio is usually exhausted. After long days of one-on-one instruction in sign language, he goes home and becomes a teacher. His three-generation household is multilingual, and a single sentence may go through three languages. His grandparents and mother speak mostly Spanish. His aunt and siblings speak English and Spanish and are catching on to the signs that Mauricio shows them. His little sister, Johana, is learning sign language at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn.

"As he gets older, the things you need to talk to your child about get more complex," Gerner de Garcia said. Ideally, she said, a family like Mauricio's would learn American Sign Language to communicate, but classes are rarely available in Spanish. Many parents, regardless of where they are from, never learn to sign, she said.

"These are parents who have lots of other challenges. They are expected to come here and learn two languages: English to get a job and ASL to understand their child," she said.

Mauricio's family usually resorts to its own sign language. There are signs they all agree on -- such as the difference between eggs that are scrambled and sunny side up -- and special signs that Mauricio uses only with individual family members -- such as a flip of the hand that Johana knows means "What?"

Sometimes, what Mauricio is saying is anybody's guess. And when nobody understands him, he gets out a pen and a piece of paper and begins to draw.

© 2003 The E-Accountability Foundation