Finding cultural identity in deafness
by Andrew Shurtleff
By Robert Brickhouse
Leigh Smith: Echols Scholar, deans list, Phi Beta Kappa,
psychology distinguished major, research assistant, active volunteer,
Judiciary Committee representative, tutor, skilled photographer.
Also, has strong computer knowledge, is proficient in Spanish
and German and is fluent in American Sign Language (ASL).
Smith, who has been deaf since birth, plans to put her wide-ranging,
hard-won knowledge to work with a career teaching deaf children.
Before she enters a graduate program in deaf education in the
fall, shell work at a camp for deaf-blind children, then
make a cross-country driving-and-camping trip to Alaska.
watching her makes me tired, a former roommate said.
of the motivating forces in Smiths many accomplishments
has been her deafness. It has also given her a strong identity
as part of a culture.
times the path wasnt easy. Growing up near Philadelphia,
she was the only deaf student in her public high school. She is
naturally outgoing, but school life could be painful socially.
She avoided the lunchroom, ate with a teacher. I focused
on homework and sports. I did well academically, she recalled
with typical modesty.
was one of several colleges Smith applied to; she found other
deaf students here, fell in love with the place and turned down
a full scholarship to Villanova.
she is the only deaf student at U.Va. this year, she hasnt
regretted her decision, making many friends with her personable
ways and sense of humor.
Smith has given to the U.Va. community perhaps more than she has
has been a steady, self-effacing, positive force at the University,
said Christopher Krentz, assistant professor of English and ASL,
and one of her mentors. Shes generous, committed and
a wonderful model.
grew up using signed English and at U.Va. easily made a switch
to ASL, finding it more expressive, providing the grammar and
concepts of a full language. She uses an interpreter in all her
classes and for communicating with those who dont know ASL.
is very important to me, she said, because its a cornerstone
of deaf culture and helps provide an identity as a deaf person.
culture is a culture like any other, and it has its own language,
she said. There are poetry and stories, but its signed,
has become a strong advocate for ASL at U.Va., and some of her
closest friends are other students who have learned it. Along
with other undergraduates, she founded a student organization
called DEAFS (Deafness, Education, Awareness For all Students)
to raise awareness about deaf-related issues.
1998, the group led a campaign to preserve the Universitys
ASL program, collecting signatures, writing newspaper articles
and persuading Student Council to pass a resolution of support.
Today the ASL courses stay filled and often have waiting lists.
addition, she has been a strong voice for diversity on Grounds.
In her second year, she addressed a large audience at a forum
about the importance of including deaf and disabled people in
the Universitys vision of diversity.
has a maturity, values and an optimistic outlook that far exceed
her years, said Krentz.
the fall, Smith plans to enter Western Maryland College to earn
a masters in deaf education. Her innovative honors
thesis in psychology at U.Va. has dealt with measuring deaf childrens
distress in different school environments.
of her aims at U.Va. has been to change misperceptions about deafness.
people dont see deafness as a disability, she said.
People shouldnt be afraid to approach a deaf person
and ask about deafness. Some people might tend to think, How
awful. But, come on, Im doing fine.