BRATTLEBORO — Despite the closure of the Austine School, Vermonters have worked to meet the lasting needs for those in the deaf community.
On Saturday, June 11, the Austine Alumni Association celebrated its 80th anniversary with alumni, state Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, Executive Director of Disability Rights Vermont Edward Paquin, Miss Vermont USA Neely Fortune and other individuals concerned with disability rights. The alumni gathered to not only reminisce about their times at school, but also to receive a Proclamation from Governor Peter Shumlin and hear about the recent passage of a bill, S.66, that resulted in the formation of a committee to advocate for the deaf community throughout the state.
"Now there's a new council formally recognized for deaf and blind to really hash things out and make recommendations to the Legislature and governor's office," said René Pellerin, who was involved with S.66 via Vermont Association of the Deaf and SAC (Save Austine Committee).
At the celebration, people applauded the governor's signing of S.66, an act relating to persons who are deaf, deafblind, or hard of hearing. The purpose of the bill is to create an Advisory Council to promote diversity, equality, awareness, and access among individuals who are deaf. The bill was signed on May 15 after going through the House and Senate over the last 15 months. Members of the council include 16 members of the public, appointed by the governor.
The role of the Advisory Council is to "...assess the services, resources, and opportunities available to children in the State who are Deaf, Hard of Hearing, or DeafBlind," according the bill. This includes the educational rights for children such as access to qualified teachers, interpreters, and paraprofessionals; opportunities that recognize each child's unique learning needs; adequate family support; identification of all losses of or reductions in services (since the closing of Austine School and others); opportunities to restore and expand educational opportunities for children in the deaf community and to appropriate data collection and reporting requirements concerning students with disabilities.
According to S.66, this Advisory Council may consider and make recommendations and assess the services, resources, and opportunities available to adults in the state who are deaf, hard of hearing, or deafblind. It may consider and make recommendations to the General Assembly and the governor on the needs and opportunities and adequacy and systemic coordination of existing services and resources.
The president of the Austine Alumni Association, Don Powers, said they have been trying to keep the association active since it came about it in 1936, but this year has been a bit different since the alumni lost their school. Nevertheless, Powers expressed excitement for the future due to passage of S.66.
"It helps us to meet our needs in terms of deaf services and reestablishing a deaf school," said Powers. "What we're trying to do is let our alumni to understand what's been going on [with S.66]."
Powers said the most important aspect of the day was to bring everyone together who had not seen one another for perhaps 10, 20, 30 or more years. He noted alumni are like a family.
"We grew up here together and it's like from birth to death. We lived here, studied here, had after-school activities here, and then after we graduated, we've come back two or three times a year," said Powers. "There is a strong bond that keeps going, and we just so value our friendship, that's really what my emphasis is for the alum."
Powers noted that given the loss of the campus, the alumni have five points in redirecting their mission: Preserving their museum, fundraising for alumni (particularly to those who have become blind through Usher syndrome), awarding scholarships to high school seniors who are deaf and placed in mainstream public schools, supporting deaf and hard-of-hearing children through the Lions Club Camp, and working more with deafblind members of the community.
Powers also applauded those in the Legislature and beyond who worked hard to make sure S.66 passed. Powers highlighted White, Paquin, Karen Lafayette (legislative advocate for the Coalition for Disability Rights) and Shumlin for their work for this bill.
On Saturday, an Austine alumni, Rochelle Drucker of Altamonte Springs, Florida, voiced her appreciation for the Austine School. Drucker lost her hearing when she was 12 years old and continued in public school from seventh to ninth grade. She said she felt "lost" in public school and watched her grades plummet. As a resident of Massachuesets at the time, her parents took it upon themselves to search high and low for a school that could reach Drucker's needs. She says that at the time, the Austine School for The Deaf was the only accredited school for the deaf community throughout New England.
"It turned my life around," said Drucker about Austine.
Drucker attended the school from 1964 to 1967 and said she returned to the campus on Saturday from Florida for the 80th anniversary to celebrate with friends, but also to commemorate the passage of S.66. She added that she hopes the bill will help to establish another school for the deaf, as she feels not everyone can be "main streamed" into a hearing classroom. Personally, she said she felt disconnected from the classroom when she had to always to look at the interpreter rather than the teacher, and did not have much opportunity to interact with fellow students.
"It's a very lonely experience being the only deaf one in a classroom, not being able to communicate with anyone else, or not having the time to communicate with anyone else," said Drucker.
Other attendees showed their support for the 80th anniversary and passage of S.66, such as Paquin, who was injured in an accident in the late 1980s and consequently suffers from a partial paralysis. He used his own personal experience of living with a disability and his role in the Legislature from 1991 to 2000 to make a difference for others who live with a disability. Paquin noted he has been involved with the passage of S.66 since 2015.
"We tried to put something together to stir the state to more action because we believe there needs to be more action to address people's needs," said Paquin.
At Saturday's gathering there was some excitement around two letters that were addressed to Donna Payne, the secretary of the Austine Alumni Association. The two letters, one from New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and another from Robert Kraft, chairman and CEO of The Kraft Group, stated their support for efforts by the Austine Alumni Association. Payne and her husband have worked at Gillette Stadium, where they established some communication with Brady. In addition, Brady gifted a jersey with his autograph that will be placed in the museum of the Austine School for the Deaf.
"With great pleasure I wish the Austine Alumni Association a very happy 80th anniversary on June 11, I wish I could be here with you," stated the note from Kraft.
Another celebrity came in person to show support for the Austine Alumni Association. Miss Vermont USA Neely Fortune, of Burlington, returned from Las Vegas the week prior where she competed for the title of Miss USA. Payne expressed her gratitude that Fortune was able to attend the event after a busy week.
Fortune explained that during her reign she has worked to advocate for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) awareness. She is also a wildlife biologist, sponsored endurance athlete and outdoor enthusiast who is an elite obstacle course racer for Reebok Spartan Race and has run nearly 40 races in the last two years. After the celebration, several people lined up to have their picture taken with Fortune and receive her autograph.
At the event the following individuals were presented with honorary awards: Governor Peter Shumlin, Senator White, state Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, Karen Lafayette, Ed Paquin, Neely Fortune, Miss Vermont Teen USA 2016 Tammy Vuyanovic and René Pellerin.
Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext 275