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Annette Reichman: School leader relearns to listen

Annette Reichman smiles next to a piece of art created by an Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and Blind student in Tucson. The piece features the American Sign Language sign for "I love you." PHOTO BY KATIE CAMPBELL/ARIZONA CAPITOL TIMES

Annette Reichman smiles next to a piece of art created by an Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and Blind student in Tucson. The piece features the American Sign Language sign for “I love you.” PHOTO BY KATIE CAMPBELL/ARIZONA CAPITOL TIMES

Annette Reichman seriously considered dropping out of high school.

She went to a school with 200 students from kindergarten through high school, and she was different.

And in that small farming community, she said, being different was not a good thing.

She was identified with a hearing loss at 6, which she said was late in the game, and was given cochlear implants. She also had vision limitations, all at a time when children begin to notice their differences and form cliques.

She said she didn’t have friends and was frequently bullied.

But that changed when she first found peers at a state school for students who were visually impaired and later attended Gallaudet College for the deaf and hard of hearing – now Gallaudet University – in Washington D.C., where she would later work for the United States Department of Education.

Now, Reichman serves as the superintendent for the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind.

“I really believe our children can be doing a lot better academically, socially and emotionally,” she said. “That was a challenge that I decided I wanted to take on.”

Cap Times Q&ATell me about your own experience with hearing impairment.

IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) did not come into being until 1975. I was 15 years old at that point, so all of those things we take for granted today were not in place back then. … By the time I got into high school, I knew pretty quickly I was going to become deaf. I decided I needed to learn sign language, and that’s when I learned about Gallaudet College. And I went from a western Nebraska farming community to Washington D.C., which was a tremendous change for a 19-year-old. And I stayed at Gallaudet. Most freshmen, if you don’t have adequate support, it’s really hard to get past the first year, especially for students who are first-generation college students. My parents had not gone to college, didn’t know how to support me. But at Gallaudet, I learned sign language, stuck it out for four years, got my bachelor’s degree and then came to the University of Arizona for my graduate degree.

I did become deaf at the age of 21, and for the next 30 years, I used sign language interpreters for most of my meetings. If I would be in a meeting with three, four or five people, I would have an interpreter to access professional meetings and different activities. And then, in 2011, I decided it’s time to try cochlear implants and became hard of hearing again essentially.

Do you prefer the implant?

I love it. I’ve found myself listening to music that I’d not listened to in 30, 35 years, which means I’m listening to the 70s, early 80s, relearning what I used to hear back then. It’s kind of like riding a bicycle. If you don’t do it for a long time, you never forget, but it gets rusty. You have to practice. It took six months with the first implant for me to relearn how to listen to the spoken language. It doesn’t happen overnight.

Can you describe that experience?

It was about a month after my first cochlear implant. I went into work. I was in the kitchen, putting my lunch away in the refrigerator, and a co-worker came in. She said something to me, and I responded. But I was looking at her, lip-reading her as I’ve been doing all my life. And then I turned my back to her, and I heard her say, “You have a good day, Annette.” I understood that without having to look at her and lip-read. So, it was that sense of – I heard that! … I was literally relearning how to listen.

What’s one thing you think people who haven’t had that experience misunderstand about people who are deaf?

That we are unique like everyone else, and we’re not homogenous. There are a lot of differences between us, but the most common assumption is, “I’ve met this one deaf person, and I know what everyone else is like.” And that’s not true.

There’s a positive and a negative to that. The positive piece is that once an individual feels comfortable with me, they’re more likely to feel comfortable with other individuals. … Then there’s sort of the halo effect. When that halo effect occurs, it means either I’m heroic or I’m a token. And neither one is positive. It really just perpetuates stereotypes and discriminatory behavior. And that to me – I’m not frustrated by it so much as I’ve become a little bit sad that I still, after 40, 50 years, have to address certain stereotypes.

Your own experiences seem to highlight the importance of reaching students early. Tell me about the Early Childhood and Family Education program.

The program really is about working with the parents or the grandparents or whomever is taking care of that child and teaching the parents to create a home environment that is accessible. … A simple example of that is if you have a child who is blind, they hear the vacuum cleaner running. But if they don’t see it, that sound has no meaning to that child. The parent has to learn how to explicitly teach the child who is blind to come over to the vacuum cleaner, to touch it, to feel it, have it running back and forth and explain what the vacuum cleaner is doing. … For a child who is deaf and hard of hearing, it really is all about access to language.

Have you had an experience with a family that really stuck with you?

There was a mother with an eight-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter. This mother had just separated from her husband, had just moved into this apartment. The apartment was in disarray. The son had just woken up. He had missed the bus to go to school, and the daughter was crawling around on the floor. She had cochlear implants, but the external piece had broken and had been broken for a couple of months. … And what really impressed me with this particular teacher was that despite the obvious frustration of that girl not getting access to any language in the way she needed, the teacher did not show any negative emotions. She praised what little was being done and really tried to support the mother.

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