Tuning in to a new world

When Michelle Edenton headed to Gallaudet University for the first day of her new job, she knew working with the hearing impaired would be a challenge. Gallaudet is one of the world’s few colleges for the deaf, and Edenton, a hearing person, was preparing to take over the athletic training duties at Model Secondary School, the high school on campus.

What the 27-year-old Nokesville native didn’t expect was the eye-opener that stuns most hearing people who venture on to the enclosed, 137-year-old Northeast D.C. campus.

“Within this campus, it’s almost assumed you know sign language,” said Edenton. “It’s their world.”

The campus is fairly silent even when it’s bustling. Signing is the key to communicating.

“When she came here [a few] years ago, she knew nothing,” said James DeStefano, Gallaudet men’s basketball coach and athletic director.

“I can remember sitting and watching them sign, thinking ‘I wish I knew what they were talking about,'” Edenton said.

In her fourth year on campus and now working at the university, Edenton is proficient in sign language. She translated DeStefano’s signed comments for this interview.

“When I started at Model,” said Edenton, laughing at the memory, “I was working with football and volleyball and I knew no sign language. One of the football players got hurt, and he ended up teaching me sign language.”

It is an essential skill on a campus where the professors sign their lectures to a population made up of 98 percent deaf or hard-of-hearing persons.

Before Gallaudet, Edenton led a happy, yet admittedly sheltered life. Her family moved from Alexandria to Nokesville when she was six so she could attend better public schools. She still loves raising horses. Unimpressed by the sophistication of the big city, she constantly longs to return to Nokesville to visit her parents.

A 1993 graduate of Brentsville District High School, Edenton played four years of basketball and three of lacrosse at Shenandoah University. She was working in a Winchester sports medicine clinic when her boss, who contracts the Gallaudet and Model jobs, let her know about the opening at the high school. She had no connection or experience with the deaf at that time.

But now, Edenton glows when speaking about the hearing impaired people she’s grown to love.

“Really, more than anything, they amaze me,” she said, listing volleyball players who succeed without the benefit of court calls and basketball players with acute senses of where others are.

“It’s definitely opened my eyes,” she said. “There’s a lot of issues working with the deaf that you don’t have working with hearing people.”

Not being able to tape ankles and talk — by signing — at the same time is just a small hurdle to overcome. Seeing how deaf people are treated around the world has been a significant wake-up call.

Edenton is a volunteer trainer for various deaf travel teams, including USA Deaf Basketball, the national team on which Dumfries native Anthony Jones stars. Her first trip was to Aguascalientes, Mexico for the Deaf Youth Track and Field Games.

“It didn’t help its deaf people at all,” she said. “It almost seemed like they didn’t want the deaf tournament there.”

Indeed, the same happened when Edenton went to Rome, Italy for the World Games for the Deaf, where she worked with a soccer team. When hundreds of deaf and hard-of-hearing athletes descend on a city, it’s the hearing population who has to adapt.

Another communication roadblock: just like spoken languages, sign languages vary from country to country.

Being from the United States at international competition is both a blessing and curse, especially in basketball. Edenton traveled to Greece with USADB this past July, where game officials didn’t exactly give the U.S. the benefit of the doubt on its calls.

But players from other countries were amazed at the U.S. “luxuries.” After games played in smoky gyms, U.S. players gave game jerseys to opponents who had played in hiking boots. Coaches gave away the diagram board and magic marker, and Edenton, one of few trainers there, gave other teams rolls of athletic tape.

“They were taping everything,” Edenton said. “It was really sad to see the other teams. There are a lot of simple things we take for granted. Everytime I go away, it really makes me appreciate coming back home.”

Parts of life at Gallaudet that would overwhelm a newcomer are routine for Edenton. She talks about legislation for improving the university, sometimes considered the center of the deaf world. She talks about how Gallaudet struggles to retain its athletes and how winning is rare.

Edenton was at the university when two highly publicized murders took place. She remembers feeling, like so many on campus, surprised and disappointed when a student was arrested for the killings.

As Gallaudet athletics advance through the school’s third year in NCAA Division III, Edenton is attending George Mason to earn a Master’s degree. She has an assistant trainer for the first time this year.

As one of few hearing people on campus, emotions can range from guilt for having a fifth sense to playful interaction. Deaf students are sometimes amazed at the things Edenton can hear.

“You never know when somebody’s deaf or hard-of-hearing,” she said. “It’s fun to be a hearing person and play deaf. [Something will happen, then people will say] ‘Oh my God, she can hear.'”

Happy with her job, Edenton is enjoying her journey through the hearing impaired world. If she could only pick the university up and move it to the country, life would be perfect.

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