Kathleen Treni

CHOICES:Kathleen, you were born deaf and developed oral language as a child. What kind of problems did you have in this process?

KT: I prefer referring to this process in terms of challenges as well as rewards. I don’t believe that any young child actually recognizes he or she is having problems “in process” when it is a part of one’s natural, daily life. I certainly did not think my life was any different than any other child’s. I am sure that the fact that I was deaf shielded me from a lot of things that hearing children took for granted. But, for me, I didn’t know what I missed. I wore bulky, body-type hearing aids and went to speech lessons. They were routine events in my life. I rather enjoyed the attention I got for doing well. I loved pleasing my speech teachers, whom I adored. Going to speech was a positive experience for me. I also believe that having a deaf sibling normalized our family constellation because there were two of us. It was not a “I’m the only one who is deaf” scenario. We were a 50/50 family! So, my brother, Mark, and I had an incredibly common bond while growing up. You could say “We talked and understood each other beautifully without using our voices.”

I was not aware of problems for myself, per se, until I hit later elementary school. Then, nearly everyone around me was experiencing some challenges. For me they were academic and social. It was getting harder and harder to keep up with the language demands of the subject matter. There were no accommodations of note takers or interpreters back then. I fell further behind in fifth and sixth grade. But, at no time did I attribute this or blame my hearing loss. Unlike in today’s educational climate, my mom’s philosophy in the 1950’s was that there will always be those folks for whom studies will come easily, and for others, for whom it will be more difficult. So I studied hard.

In seventh grade, I transferred to a private girls’ school. This middle school experience was a golden opportunity to take my time to mature and to catch up academically. At the end of three wonderful years, I was able to return to public school to spread my wings. What a difference this preparation made for me!

I sailed through high school. Socially, I was always shy and challenged. But, so were many of the kids I went to high school with. I never believed in a pity party for myself, although once in a while I wondered why I was deaf. I made the most of high school, participated in many activities and shot to near the top of my class academically. Life was not perfect, but I recognized that it wasn’t easy for most kids my age. I woke up to the realities of life. My public high school was a microcosm of society itself. It was the late 60’s. We were in the middle of race riots. It was plain to me that life was not fair for a whole lot of people. I learned that each of us has crosses to bear. Mine was living with deafness. It was a mindset that has sustained me to this day.

CHOICES: I’ve heard it said that the word “oral” has a bad connotation for people who are culturally Deaf. Do you agree? Why or why not?

KT: The word “oral” is now an outdated term, both in education and in conversation. When one refers to a deaf or hard of hearing person who talks, one says he uses listening and spoken language.

With respect to the Deaf community, some adults may have been educated in schools where they did not have positive experiences. I would defer to those individuals for their input of their experiences. However, I did not have a negative experience so it doesn’t have a bad connotation for me as a deaf individual. If there is one thing that I’ve learned is that deafness is an individual journey in that what may work for one person may not work for the next. What’s important is that today there many options available to people who are deaf and we should all respect each others’ choices as far as what mode of communication we use and prefer.

CHOICES: Your program in Bergen County is called the “Communication Skills Continuum.” Why? What’s the significance of the word “Continuum?”

KT: Bergen County Special Services district is a county-wide program which has three continuums: Behavior, Life Skills and Communication Skills. As Principal of the Communication Skills Continuum, it is my responsibility to provide a continuum of services that meets the needs of students with hearing loss. There is no one right way to educate a deaf or hard of hearing child. We recognize that there is a need to have all options available to families. We provide the full spectrum of listening and spoken language options as well as total communication and ASL options in a variety of educational placement settings.

CHOICES: Your program accommodates both students who use ASL as a first language and those who speak English. However, ASL students are in a separate facility. Why did you design the program this way?

KT: We offer community-based programs in two different school districts. In Midland Park, we off a K through 12th grade program for the students who listen and speak. In Hackensack, we have a similar K through 12th grade community experience for children educated in the total communication method.

These two approaches are distinct and each has its own methodology of practice that requires different expertise and professional development. Each is a specialty requiring an investment of time and energy to become the best in that program. The professionals in one setting receive different professional development than the professionals in the other. The professional development and expectations of those professionals and how they approach their respective students is different in each educational environment. The staff at the total communication program promote an understanding of Deaf culture because the program is more self contained. They prepare these students for post-secondary schools that continue sign language as the basis of their instruction. They also promote understanding of the uniqueness of being Deaf in a culture within the context of society.

The listening and spoken language program promotes a more global mainstream view. These students developed friends with one another and also with typical hearing peers. Students in this program tend to have wider choices for college, choosing not only schools where sign language is the basis of instruction, but also other mainstream colleges that meet the needs of their career interests.

CHOICES: Under what circumstances would a signing student who lives in Bergen County attend the New Jersey School for the Deaf in Trenton rather than your ASL program in Hackensack?

KT: I am unable to answer this question and defer the reader to explore the New Jersey Department of Education website to get a comprehensive overview of the criteria for placement of students at the Katzenbach School for the Deaf.

CHOICES: What advice would you offer to a state like Delaware that has not provided a program for developing listening and spoken language skills in deaf and hard-of-hearing children?

KT: I think there is enthusiastic interest in Delaware to develop educational options for students with hearing loss. I would encourage every state to examine ways it can best meet the needs of a wide diversity of students entering the public school system. Universal newborn hearing screening, early intervention and the availability of advanced hearing technologies, have allowed many children who are deaf or hard of hearing to enter public school programs on par or nearly on par in language development with their typical hearing peers. As early intervention techniques improve and hearing technologies evolve, the school district will encounter an increasing number of students with listening and spoken language as their preferred mode of communication. Those students’ accommodation should be no less than equal to what is currently provided to students across the communication spectrum.