“How did your mom hear when you cried as a baby?”
“How come you can hear?”
“Can your mom drive?”
If there’s a question someone has about growing up with a deaf parent, Debbie Abel has heard it.
“When my mom was three years old, she contracted mumps and measles. She suffered a high fever which resulted in her loss of hearing,” said Abel. “Growing up with a hearing dad and a deaf mother, we were taught two languages. It was just what we knew.”
While other children were learning a single language, Abel was learning two. “I first began learning sign as a baby. It was how my mom communicated.”
As she grew up, Abel began to sign while she spoke, continually learning and practicing her second language. Although her brothers and her dad all knew sign, Abel took on the role as her mother’s interpreter. “When mom went places without my dad, I was her voice.” It was through this daily experience that Abel became the most fluent in sign language in her family.
Most children have two hearing parents. Abel knew a different norm: one deaf parent and one hearing. “My friends were always nervous when they first met my mom. They all end up loving her none the less. My close, long term friends often learn basic sign in order to communicate with her,” Abel said with a small smile. “My mom is a crack up and everyone loves her, she is the best mom I could ever ask for. Once everyone got over the initial language barrier, she is loved by all.”
Abel has been married to her husband, Shannon Abel, for 33 years. They have two sons: Dustin and Devin, both of who know sign. Abel has also been blessed with two grandchildren, Khloe and Kaiden. As the two grow up, they slowly begin to learn sign, as well as their mother, Brittanie.
Abel attended the Interpreters program at William Woods University, where she earned her certificate. She also attained her Interpreting License from the Missouri Commission for the Deaf. After, she began her career in sign language with the Jefferson City Public School district. Then, in 1998, she came to Blair Oaks as an interpreter for student Justin Englebrecht, a 2004 graduate. In 2004, Missouri passed legislation that allowed American Sign Language (ASL) to offered American Sign Language as a foreign language. This opened a whole new door for Abel. The next year, she worked with Dr. Jim Jones (the Blair Oaks high school principal at the time) and the Department of Education to get the class added to the Blair Oaks curriculum. “My first year teaching was at the middle school level with an exploratory class.” The following year, ASL was added to the curriculum as a foreign language.
Over the next two years, the program grew with the addition of ASL II and ASL III, along with the addition of the ASL Club. “We (the club) started out small, holding fundraisers to raise money for the future. We wanted to save up money for club activities, as well as to help purchases resources for the ASL classes. Then, over the next few years, we were lucky enough to grow into one of the largest clubs in the school and were able to raise enough money to purchase Netbooks for the students to use in the classroom.” The internet has been a huge gift to the deaf and hard-hearing community. Sign language is so visual that being able to see the signs actually acted out versus printed in 2-D on a book page has made such a large impact. The current technology, such as the Netbooks, is such a huge learning aide, that the class is able to get through more lessons than before.
Through the years, the club has spent money on a variety of items. This includes gifts for the dorms at the Missouri School for the Deaf (MSD), gifts for from the Salvation Army tree, and for the active members after they volunteer during the club’s semiannual trash pickup. They also donate to other various organizations, raffles, and benefits.
The club often visits MSD, which allows them to use their newfound language. The club attends the annual Christmas party sponsored by Ameren at the school. During the party, the club members act as interpreters for the Ameren employees and even Santa Clause himself, aiding them in the communication between them and the deaf students. They also attend MSD basketball games, sitting in the bleachers with the students, conversing with the deaf students, just as they would at their own basketball games.
In 2010, the News Tribune did a full page feature story on Abel and her ASL classes/club. “It has to be one of the highlights of my career,” Abel said with a smile. “It was great to see the recognition given to the language. Many of the students leave the class and continue to use the language in their everyday lives, some even moving even further and pursuing a degree in the language. It’s nice to bring light to the language that I love.”
Through the years, Abel has been asked many questions regarding her abilities to speak two languages. “Everyone asks about my life. Especially my students. They often ask how to sign specific phrases or words. And I don’t mind, as long as they don’t ask about swear words or use the language as a party trick.” When asked if she ever tires of answering the questions, Abel laughed. “No, it doesn’t bother me. I don’t mind sharing my experiences with those who are genuinely interested. Everyone is interested in someone.”
So whenever someone asks you a question about yourself, remember, everyone is interesting to someone.