We Are L.A. Unified

Breanne Valbuena was a distinct minority among the members of her sorority at California State University, Northridge. She could hear.

Now Breanne, an American sign language interpreter at Mulholland Middle School, works at the only Los Angeles Unified middle school in the San Fernando Valley that offers a deaf/hard-of-hearing program. Terri Tracht, who heads the program, Robin Sforza, a teacher and Breanne, who joined the staff last year, instruct five full-time students. 

“I love watching the students make the connections of signs/American Sign Language concepts with new subjects that are being taught to them” she said. “I did not foresee enjoying that part the most.”

Breanne and her colleagues must account for a range of experiences and backgrounds in approaching each of their students. “The impact of a person’s hearing loss varies,” she explained, “resulting in a number of potential modifications and accommodations to the classroom and school environment. 

Some students may use hearing or cochlear implants, requiring a teacher or interpreter to use more English mouthing, singing in English order, or even utilizing other electronic devices that sync the child’s hearing aid with the teacher’s voice directly.” 

There are other circumstances to consider: “On many occasions, it may require a combination of American Sign Language, listening devices, interpreting, and other means of communication to best meet a child’s needs.” 

Soon after she arrived at the sprawling Northridge campus from her home in Grants Pass, Ore., Breanne enrolled in a sign language class. She was curious, and wanted to fulfill her language requirement. 

Northridge offers an undergraduate program in Deaf Studies; according to information provided on the university’s website, more than 200 deaf/hard-of-hearing students are enrolled at the campus.

She grew fascinated with sign language, particularly its aesthetic qualities. “I thought it was beautiful,” she said. “The language is so expressive. When you are using receptive skills, you have to use your eyes instead of your ears.” 

By the end of her freshman year, Breanne majored in Deaf Studies, with an option in interpreting. Soon, she joined Alpha Sigma Theta, a sorority founded by deaf women with three U.S. chapters. The 2008 Northridge graduate estimates that 75 percent of her sorority sisters were either deaf or hard-of-hearing.

“I lived, ate, and breathed the deaf culture,” she said, estimating that three out of four sorority members were either deaf or hard-of-hearing.   

Acceptance by her sorority sisters was not immediate; some were skeptical of her choice to inhabit their world, where she faced the possibility of being ridiculed and stereotyped. But for Breanne that was exactly the point. She wanted to understand what it meant to be deaf and hard-of-hearing in all its manifestations. 

Socially, Breanne communicated exclusively through sign language with her new friends. “When we went out, people would stare,” she recalled. Unaware that Breanne could hear, some of them added rude comments. 

At graduation, Breanne, then fully integrated with the deaf and hard-of-hearing students, attended the regular ceremonies for her class. She remained with the university, working as an interpreter in various classes. 

She also picked up free  lance assignments, including accompanying deaf children to their doctor appointments, where she interpreted the patient’s symptoms to the doctor, and the doctor’s diagnosis and instructions to the patient. 

One time, Breanne was in the delivery room, interpreting for a deaf couple for nearly 10 hours. When the baby arrived, recalled Breanne, “I was nearly as full of joy as the parents.”

At Mulholland, Breanne’s ultimate goal is to help her students approach educational parity with their hearing peers. 

“The main thing we work on is to encourage our students to get the same education (as other students),” explained Breanne, “plus to have the social experience and access.” The deaf students at her school join the others for math and Physical Education classes.

Education parity will not be easy to achieve; deaf and hard-of-hearing students typically have much lower reading scores, for example. 

Still, Breanne recognizes the program at Mulholland provides more than a glimmer of hope to young people who might otherwise have been consigned by society to a role that’s beneath their capacities and talents. 

“Although I’ve had countless positive experiences in the classroom,” said Breanne, “the most profound moments include witnessing students who are deaf and hard-of-hearing communicate confidently and effectively in the general education setting.” 

-Tom Waldman


COMING TUESDAY: The story of how one physical education teacher inspires her students    
                                   to better health.

To nominate a teacher, student or employee, send an email to Thomas.Waldman@lausd.net, or call (213) 241-6766

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