Since I’ve been legally able to have a job, I’ve worked with kids. Summer camps, nannying, volunteer work at schools. Every age group, every season, indoor and outdoor. I’ve lost countless pairs of sneakers to “accidents,” had to clean puke out of my hair, and changed hundreds of diapers. And I’m pretty sure I still have glitter embedded in my scalp from a Rainbow Fish craft I did five years ago. But in the fall of 2011, I tackled a demographic fairly unfamiliar to me: children with physical and developmental disabilities. I was lucky enough to be given a job as a teacher’s aide at the Mary Cariola Children’s Center, a nationally renowned and recognized school tailored to children afflicted with all types of Autism, Angelman Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, Downs Syndrome, and many other lesser known physical disorders. Their mantra is “Discovering every child’s potential” and it is a motto they take extremely seriously. I was placed in what’s referred to as a “walker” room, meaning all the students had independent mobility. My classroom was comprised of seven boys between ages of seven and 11. Of the seven, four were almost completely nonverbal, the physical afflictions they had making “true speech” almost impossible. A few words here and there, affirmative or negative runts to answer questions. But I never had an issue comprehending them. Why? Because they could sign. They signed fluently and beautifully. Three of them used Dynavoxes, feats of interactive technology that allow communication in nonverbal persons. Dynavoxes work similarly to an iPad or touchscreen phone: you touch buttons on the screen and the computer responds. But don’t expect any Angry Birds or Pinterest here. These boys were building sentences and learning vocabulary. Large font buttons of words and phrases, along with corresponding picture and sign gesture, are used to string together sentences, questions, and requests, even jokes. After building your sentence, the machine would your words in a kid-friendly robot’s voice.
Dynavoxes not only give audible cues by clearly speaking and pronouncing words, but visual cues as well. After only two weeks with the device, one of my boys increased his sign vocabulary by 13 words! Simple sign is at the core of the education program designed for these students, even those who are able to communicate verbally. One of my boys was low-functioning Autistic and had a penchant for constantly quoting lines from Shrek and Spongebob Squarepants. But his knack for memorization helped him pick up sign quickly, and I’m sure if you ever find yourself needing to know how to say “smelly ogre” in sign language, he will gladly teach you.
Sign language isn’t just critical in communication. ASL is also a great way to stimulate and hone both fine and gross motor skills in kids with motor related delays. The act of signing helps increase awareness of the hands and wrists, which is a huge struggle for many students at MCCC, especially those with Angelman Syndrome. Angelman is a genetic disorder also known as “Happy Puppet” Syndrome because it is characterized by loose, floppy limbs and exuberant, joyful outlooks. Disorders that target joints and ligaments make menial tasks, like holding a pencil or using a fork, very frustrating and difficult. But, combined with occupational and physical therapy, sign language has been shown to positively affect and increase the use and awareness of hands and fingers, which is immeasurably important in he long run when, when the kids grow up and are responsible for feeding, clothing, and supporting themselves.
The life skills I saw being taught and executed in my time with Mary Cariola are not so different from those I was encouraged to value myself; embrace education, cherish friends and family, be responsible with what you have, and above all else, live a life with self-respect and love for who you are, flaws and all. These kids are given a chance at a normal, happy life because of the incredible teachers, aides, therapists, and social workers that make up the MCCC family, and it was an honor to experience the growth and accomplishments of these amazing kids first hand. I learned that a high IQ isn’t as important as a good heart; you don’t need to be deaf to learn and enjoy American Sign Language, and most importantly, live life with joy and eagerness. Because as long as you are willing to learn, someone is willing to teach.
(My Smart Hands Intern)