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Enhancing parent-deaf child link

Sign language lessons online

When Lorna Davidson-Connelly hears a student object to a day off from school, she doesn't take it lightly.

As a counselor for deaf and other hearing-impaired students, Davidson-Connelly said the unusual complaint could be a signal that the student's family has difficulty communicating with the child at home.

''I can't tell you how many times my students will say, ''We don't want vacation to happen, we don't like weekends," she said. ''They don't like it because they don't have anybody to communicate with."

Now with the help of a grant from the Verizon Foundation, some of Davidson-Connelly's students will get the chance to increase their family interaction and promote their literacy rates.

The $75,000 grant will enable the Northeast Regional Center of Gallaudet University at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill to expand its Shared Reading program into online video instruction statewide.

The program is designed to help parents and teachers like Davidson-Connelly.

The grant will use real-time teaching over videophone by deaf tutors to teach parents the basics of sign language so they can read to their deaf children, said Kathy Vesey, executive director of the center.

Promoting sign language is a technique Vesey said would reduce the potential for a language barrier to separate a hearing parent from their deaf child.

''For literacy development in all children, the research shows that children whose family reads to them in the home do better in the long run academically, and they develop more literacy skills," she said.

The expanded program is scheduled to begin in April. Initially, the center will work with at least 25 families over an 18-month period, with each family receiving 10 weeks of free service, Vesey said.

Since it was introduced by the center, Shared Reading has brought 18 families together in Lawrence each month during the school year, Vesey said.

Once the high-speed phase begins, participants will use a videophone, provided by the center, to communicate with a deaf tutor who will sign the story and coach the family directly, she said.

Kelly Gomez, an 11-year-old from Lawrence who has progressive hearing loss, has participated in the monthly sessions for more than two years, first as a student and now as an assistant.

''She enjoys the program so much, and now that she's older, she enjoys going and helping, which is great," her mother, Jackie Gomez, said.

As parents work toward improving their signing, the sessions also provide a chance to socialize with others who share similar circumstances.

''Being able to be with parents just like me, being able to talk about anything when it comes to our kids, it's a great support," Gomez said.

Tom Boudrow, outreach manager for Verizon's Center for Customers with Disabilities, said his previous experience as executive director of the Massachusetts State Association of the Deaf has provided him with a unique perspective for the future of the ''Shared Reading" program and others like it.

During his 13 years with the association, Boudrow was involved in two programs that encouraged parents to develop the skills necessary for communicating with their deaf children through sign language and noticed several areas that could be improved by technology, he wrote in an e-mail interview.

''One of the main problems I encountered overseeing these programs was locating teachers in areas close to families in need," Boudrow wrote. ''Sometimes teachers had to travel great distances to provide classes to the families in their home environment."

The opportunity to learn from a tutor in real time also provides parents the chance to understand signing at a faster rate, which will improve both the child's reading level and the parent's communication at home, said Davidson-Connelly, who teaches at the Arlington School in Lawrence.

''I can't tell you how exciting that it is, as a counselor for the deaf and hard-of-hearing students, because the kids struggle so much with communicating," she said.

''I certainly hope that it proves to be such an awesome educational tool that it will go national."

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