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Deaf, blind students gather for graduation that celebrates their unique achievements

By Emily Anderson standard-Examiner - | May 29, 2021
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Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind graduate Andrew Graham walks to receive his diploma during a commencement ceremony at the schools' Ogden campus on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

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Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind graduate Tayler Paulsen shakes hands during a commencement ceremony at the schools' Ogden campus on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

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Friends and family of Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind graduates offer silent applause during a commencement ceremony at the schools' Ogden campus on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

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Andrew Graham, a graduate of Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, speaks at his commencement ceremony at the schools' Ogden campus on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

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Graduates of Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind listen during their commencement ceremony at the schools' Ogden campus on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

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Graduates of Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind listen during their commencement ceremony at the schools' Ogden campus on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

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Tayler Paulsen, a graduate of Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, listens to Blind Campus Programs Director Ryan Greene as she prepares to speak at her commencement ceremony at the schools' Ogden campus on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

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Tayler Paulsen, a graduate of Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, listens to Blind Campus Programs Director Ryan Greene as she prepares to speak at her commencement ceremony at the schools' Ogden campus on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

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Tayler Paulsen, a graduate of Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, speaks at her commencement ceremony at the schools' Ogden campus on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

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Kili Andersen, a graduate of Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, gives a presentation in sign language at her commencement ceremony at the schools' Ogden campus on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

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James Luneborg, a graduate of Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, gives a presentation in sign language at his commencement ceremony at the schools' Ogden campus on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

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Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind graduate Hannah Hart shakes hands during a commencement ceremony at the schools' Ogden campus on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

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Friends and family of Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind graduates offer silent applause during a commencement ceremony at the schools' Ogden campus on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

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Marie Mangels, a graduate of Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, hugs Martin Price, who heads the Kenneth Burdett School of the Deaf in Ogden, during a commencement ceremony at the schools' Ogden campus on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

OGDEN — Instead of using blow horns or other noisemakers, family and friends at a local graduation ceremony tipped their hats to graduates with a different gesture — they raised their hands in the air with outstretched fingers and wiggled their wrists.

Often called a silent applause or visual applause, it was appropriate for the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind’s commencement, where four of the graduates were deaf or hard of hearing, and three were blind or visually impaired.

Other local schools are holding ceremonies in which hundreds of student are walking across the stage to accept their diplomas, and USDB’s graduation was small in comparison with just seven students. But each student gave a presentation at the event showing how they’ve surmounted big obstacles to be able to turn their tassel.

“Our graduates are unique in the fact that the challenges they’ve overcome have been tenfold compared to other teenagers,” said Susan Patten, the associate superintendent for the Utah School for the Blind. “Not to underestimate the challenges that other teenagers have had to face, but ours had to face the vision and the hearing losses along with those.”

One of those graduates was Hannah Hart, who is visually impaired. She attended the Utah School for the Blind in Ogden.

When Hart was 3 weeks old, she said, her doctor told her mom that she had a vision impairment, as well as other disabilities. The medical professionals who worked with Hart weren’t sure if she was ever going to be able to walk or talk, but her mom signed her up for the parent-infant program at USDB.

“If it weren’t for USDB and everyone else helping me, I would not be graduating high school like I am today,” Hart said from the podium. “I would be in a wheelchair. I would not be talking. I wouldn’t be able to do anything on my own, but here I am graduating high school.”

After graduation, she hopes to pursue a career in baking.

Another graduate, James Luneborg, began attending the Jean Massieu School of the Deaf in Salt Lake City after his family moved to Utah when he was a sophomore in high school.

Prior to moving, he said, he had never been in a deaf setting in his life. Because of that, he never participated in any after-school or extracurricular activities.

“When I moved here to Utah, it really impacted my life,” said a translator interpreting Luneborg’s sign language. “I was able to socialize with other deaf peers and be a part of basketball and other events.”

Luneborg plans to eventually become a day trader in the stock market.

Although coming to USDB helped the deaf, hard of hearing, blind and visually impaired students find community and access specialized instruction, it didn’t remedy all of the difficulties students faced. Like graduating seniors throughout the world, the last year of USDB students’ high school career was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Patten, USDB never had to close any of its campuses due to COVID-19 outbreaks. It did, however, have to shut down some classrooms for a period of time, forcing students to learn online.

“Our kids came back as soon as they possibly could, and our parents wanted in-school learning, so they were very flexible when we said this class needs to go on quarantine,” Patten said.

Most students at the schools preferred in-person instruction because for those who have difficulty hearing or seeing, accessing online learning can be a problem. Blind and visually impaired students are often not able to see a computer screen. Deaf and hard of hearing students who are quarantined at home aren’t always surrounded by people who can effectively communicate answers to their questions.

Patten said the schools worked tirelessly this year to make sure students had all of the accessibility equipment they needed to study at home, even though much of it is expensive. Some of that technology included screen readers, or a BrailleNote Touch, which costs nearly $6,000.

“The world of technology is ever-changing, and we are right up on that,” Patten said. “We are right up on making sure our kids have the latest and the greatest. It’s not something that they just want — it’s something they need.”

After going through the ups and downs of the last year — and their entire education career, really — students also needed a graduation ceremony to recognize their achievement, Patten said.

She was grateful that attendees didn’t have to social distance as much this year as they did in 2020 and that the schools were able to hold a full, in-person graduation ceremony.

“We feel like it’s so important to celebrate these families and the students, and to congratulate them because they’ve already overcome so much,” Patten said. “We want them to know they can really do anything they put their mind to because they’ve already done that.”

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