By Laura Seversen / El Inde
When Amelie Morales found out she was being sent home from her in-person learning environment in March, she immediately felt afraid. She couldn’t imagine life outside of her purple-and-teal decorated dorm room at the Tucson Arizona School of Deaf and Blind, surrounded by the only four walls and peers that truly made her feel safe.
And she likely wasn’t the only student who felt this way.
Just like many of her 40 classmates living at the ASDB, Morales was born with hearing impairments far beyond her parents’ imagination. While she was a bright student with a curious mind, she did not always feel comfortable with her hearing disability and needed a safe space that specifically targets disability education for deaf students. Her mother Laura placed Morales in the ASDB at a young age to assist her with sign language and strengthen her ability to communicate and comfortably navigate through the outside world.
But Morales will never forget the day when she left her bubble at the ASDB. She walked in a single-file line next to her peers down the yellow hallways she has grown familiar with– to ever fathom the thought of leaving– into the reading room, where her teacher announced that former President Donald Trump declared a national emergency.
Not only did Morales worry about leaving the school’s American Sign Language and Deaf Culture that she has grown comfortable with, but she would have to wave goodbye to her teacher and move back with her parents at home who did not know enough proper sign language. Her parents were not too familiar with sign language so it was difficult to explain important events to Morales that she was too curious to understand.
The language gap between Morales and her parents made it difficult for her to get answers to the questions brewing in her head about the virus and why she was being sent home. However, time at home with her parents allowed Morales to get more comfortable outside of the school walls and face her disability with her parents head-on. Morales was able to bridge the gaps between her parents’ sign language barrier and become closer with her family than ever before.
Many students living at the Arizona State School for the Deaf and Blind in Tucson went from seeing their peers and teachers every day to interacting behind a computer screen. The online transition brought a unique set of challenges for the 150 students like Morales who have visual or hearing impairments and rely on specialized access that the ASDB provides.
“Being at home felt very different outside of my bubble on campus,” the sixteen-year-old deaf student Morales signed. “Mrs. Voss threw together materials and tried to help me as much as possible from home. But it wasn’t the same help that I was used to on campus.”
Mrs. Voss’ materials included a specialized sign language book for each of her students, laptops that could be rented from the school for those who did not have online access at home, the worksheets she had lined up for the remainder of the school year and a jar of beads which the students used to make friendship bracelets from home to give their peers when the school was back open.
Walking out of the big, blue doors directly into her mother’s embrace was a struggle for Morales — especially when it came to saying goodbye to her friends not knowing the next time she would be able to safely interact with them.
Although she has always been close with her parents, for a deaf student like Morales, actively learning sign language from professionals is the equivalent to any student learning advanced English or writing from an English teacher. However, Amelie’s mother Laura Morales said that despite the challenges of learning from home, something clicked for her daughter and helped her flourish in an unexpected online learning environment.
Morales said her passion for learning deaf culture and sign language caused her to persevere through the hardest days she has ever had to face, among many of her peers.
“A lightbulb just went off, and she blew up in language,” Laura Morales said. “I’ve always signed to Amelie, and she began signing much more than usual. I was like, ‘Whoa. Where did that come from?”
The months that followed last March seemed neverending for Morales. Aside from remaining busy with social media trends, arts and crafts and television, each day at home dragged on for Morales. She enjoyed the support from her parents and close family at home but longed for her friends and her purple-and-teal dorm room. The constant adventure, action and endless freedom around her school was something that made Morales genuinely happy. Roaming the halls with the ability to turn a corner every which way is something Morales cannot always experience in the outside world. She and her friends ate lunch each day on the field next to the blue playground and “hung out” with each other as any teenager would. This simple lunch routine was something that Morales looked forward to everyday and missed every day she was at home last year. It was helpful to be constantly surrounded by people that made her feel like a perfectly normal and accepted teenager.
She grew close to the people who made the Arizona School of Deaf and Blind feel like a safe haven. Morales said a prayer every night, asking for the opportunity to once again embrace her friends and sign their silly handshake to each other that not even the teachers could understand.
ASDB Principal Kelly Creasy was determined to greet her students’ faces, hear their voices and see those smiles light up the classrooms once again. Everyone wanted to desperately return, and in August, that wish became an optimistic possibility– so they thought. The state released updated guidelines in July when approaching the 2020-2021 school year, and a three-part test for reopening, meaning the students could not return just yet. Morales and her mother were still hopeful that she would be granted her wish by the start of the upcoming school year.
Families were given the option to return if they lacked access to vital internet service at home, but only fifteen students returned that month.
“Usually we see about 40 of our 150 students living on campus,” said Creasy. “But our first phase seemed a little different and a little more quiet. We created bubbles for each of the groups and staff was assigned to one specific dorm room to keep it as safe as possible. Even then, I didn’t give up to [have] all 40 kids [return] to live on campus.”
Not every ASDB student has a parent who can use American Sign Language, like Morales, or a family that is comfortable allowing visually or hearing impaired students to get around on their own. Morales, unfortunately, was not one of the fifteen students given the opportunity to return to campus, but sat patiently at home practicing her signing more and more. Each day brought her improved strength, growth, confidence and independence that she knew she would carry with her into the next school year. She was motivated to inspire her peers that did not have the same turning point or passion during their time at home.
“I was so scared to be sent home but it actually helped me [identify] with myself more than ever the more time I spent practicing online getting better,” said Morales. “I was so proud of myself but knew that not all of my friends improved because they didn’t have parents that could help them as well.”
After what seemed like forever, all 40 students were able to return to their dorm rooms on campus and reunite under specific COVID regulations implemented by President Creasy in October. Some students were deeply affected by the pandemic, both in terms of accessibility and emotionally. Schools such as the ASDB provide resources, proper sign language education and communication that the students would otherwise not receive from non-professionals or workers of that expertise.
Without the normal school year on campus, students lost some of those learning resources and felt muddled while trying to complete their everyday school days at home. Some lost loved ones or members of their community. Some experienced identity crises without their comfortable, normal environment and others lacked the support they desperately needed at home. With assistance and a warm welcome-back from teachers like Mrs. Voss and President Creasy, the students at the ASDB are still working together to adjust to the school’s new normal and once again feel their tiny safe haven come to life.
“I can finally say I am good enough, you know?” Morales says. “I can finally say I believe in myself. I think I am capable. And I hope that everyone like me out there feels the same soon.”