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'A Show of Hands' in Streator: Students learning sign language

Special education aide Alison Roetker interprets for Streator High School sophomore Joe Coon, who is deaf, throughout the school day.

She said several students have approached her interested in learning sign language, so she proposed the formation of a signing club called A Show of Hands, which the school board approved last week. 

Among those interested in joining is sophomore Tre Bowman. He met Joe in the Project Unify Club, where students, including those in special education, come together to play games, go on field trips or take part in activities.

Tre doesn't know any sign language, so he communicates with Joe through text messages, but wants to learn more.

"Joe is a great kid, and I want to communicate with him," Tre said.

Through his interpreter, Joe said his main form of communication with fellow students is texting.

In the two days after the school board's decision, about a dozen students and staff contacted Roetker about their interest in joining the club. The group met for the first time before school Wednesday in the school library.

In her proposal to the board, Roetker said she is willing to meet once or twice a month to teach club members basic sign language, such as letters, numbers, colors and items such as apple, book, cat and dog.

Ottawa High School had a signers club for a long time, but it disbanded after the school's interpreter left a few years ago, according to the counseling office.

Roetker said she has been interested in sign language since she was in junior high. At the time, she was helping with a Sunday school special education class in Mattoon. The teacher used sign language to communicate with a deaf student.

Roetker attended Illinois Central College in the Peoria area to become a sign language interpreter.

Sign language, she said, focuses on concepts; an interpreter doesn't translate every word a person is saying.

"There are a lot of words such as 'and' and 'the' that aren't necessary. These words don't help with concepts," she said.

Many make assumptions about the deaf, Roetker said.

"People think that because you're deaf, you can read lips," she said.

Some do, but many don't, including Joe.

Roetker said people often speak louder with deaf people, with the hope they can be heard. But that makes no difference for Joe. He is considered "profoundly" deaf, which means he can hear nothing, no matter the volume.

Besides sign language and texts, Joe relies on facial expressions and body language. Perhaps he's more perceptive of such visual cues because he is deaf, Roetker said.

"I've noticed that if he is mad, he signs bigger. I do the same thing," Roetker said.

"It's similar to all-caps emails and texts people send when they're angry," she said.

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