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Signs of progress at Deh Gah

Elgar assisting deaf student with academics

Derek Neary
Northern News Services

Fort Providence (Feb 22/02) - Seminars and staff meetings can be frustrating for Fern Elgar.

Being profoundly deaf in her right ear and only able to hear general sounds through the hearing aid in her left ear, Elgar relies on sign language and reading lips.

"It's like a garbled sound," she said of announcements blaring over the public address system at Deh Gah school. For her, there's nothing better than one-on-one exchanges.

"It's a hard concept for people to understand. They take for granted that you're always hearing everything."

Elgar can speak clearly -- many people initially don't realize she's deaf. She came to Deh Gah school last fall to help deaf Grade 1 student Kayla Leishman grasp academics and improve her communications skills. Kayla's sign language vocabulary is growing rapidly, according to Elgar.

"She talks (signs) a lot more than before. A lot of times I have to tell her to stop talking and listen," she said, smiling. Kayla is displaying fewer behavioral problems because she's beginning to understand what is expected of her, she said. "She's a very bright kid ... she tells me what she observes in the room. She has a very good comprehensive concept."

Kayla is profoundly deaf, but can sense vibrations such as someone running down a hallway or a cart being pushed. Her classmates had been learning basic sign language since last year with teacher Barb Leuze and assistant Veronica Gargan. They have been making Kayla feel like part of the class, Fern said.

"She's growing up with them ... she's very popular with her peers. Everything in Fort Providence belongs to her," Elgar said. "Students ask me in the hallway at recess, 'What's the sign for this word?'"

Mike Leishman, Kayla's father, said his daughter loves going to school now.

"She's eager to learn," he said. "Her finger spelling is just so fast ... sometimes she stumps he," he laughed.

Elgar grew up in Carlisle, Sask. before attending the Saskatoon School for the Deaf for 10 years. She went on to become the first deaf woman to receive an anthropology degree from Carleton University. She also achieved highest distinction for defending her thesis, which compared residential schools for aboriginal people with those for the deaf.

She was an American sign language co-ordinator and an adult literacy instructor for the deaf in Calgary. She has also worked in group homes with deaf clients and had been employed in northern Quebec, where she assisted three deaf Inuit children.

Her wish was always to work in the North, though. "It's my dream come true ... I feel very lucky to be here. I find the community is so great," she said.