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Teaching Sign Language in Senegal

Nicole Caparulo makes the sign for "Africa," an arc of the hand from left to right.

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a series of features on recipients of the Judith Oliver Brown Memorial Award.

Keuka junior Nicole Caparulo of Corning is combining her interests in special education and sign language this month by conducting  a Field Period internship at a residential school for deaf children in Senegal, West Africa.

Caparulo is a unified childhood/special education major with a concentration in American Sign Language (ASL), and discovered the West African school through Martha French,  associate professor of education. A friend of French’s, Dr. Angela Bednarczyk, worked 20 years at Galludet University’s Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center, and now works as assistant to the educational director at the Renaissance School for the Deaf (L’Ecole Renaissance des Sourds) in Dakar, the capital city of Senegal.

According to Bednarczyk, the Renaissance School for the Deaf was founded in 2007 and follows the Senegalese national curriculum with instruction based on the use of the Francophone West African sign language. The school serves 35 students and has five classrooms, five teachers, and a deaf teacher in training. Each year, students attend whose ages range from 4 to 16.

Caparulo said she expects some elements of ASL will carry over to the sign language used in Senegal, but compared it more to a dialect.

“I am very interested in deaf education, special education, diversity and being open and accepting differences and ways to do things. That plays a major part in education, because you need to be able to do things and experience them,” said Caparulo.

“Special education teaching just stands out for me, along with sign language,” she added. “It’s such a beautiful language, how could I not be drawn to it? It’s always been a passion and now I have an opportunity to learn about it. I’m taking advantage of that.“My dream job would essentially be a small classroom with students with different gifts and abilities, and I definitely think the special education classroom is where I’m meant to be.”

Caparulo’s experience working for those with special needs includes helping out at Special Olympics in her childhood, and with the Steuben County ARC, where her mom has worked “for as long as I’ve been alive,” she said.

Nicole herself has worked the past four years for the ARC, and is currently responsible for overseeing one of its residential homes in Corning. She commutes one hour each way to campus Tuesdays and Thursdays for classes, while holding down her full-time job.

Caparulo makes the sign for "deaf."

“That’s what I have to do to be able to go to school and work at a place I very much enjoy,” she said. “I’ve always grown up in that atmosphere and learned about treating people with respect and not viewing [individual challenges] as ‘disabilities.’ It’s the only way of life that I know – it’s just how things are. I guess an example is when other people would see limitations or a disability like Down’s Syndrome, but I see this person loves soccer and loves to drive, is working on getting his or her own place to live, and works at Applebee’s.”

Travel costs for Caparulo’s Field Period were defrayed through a $2,200 Judith Oliver Brown Memorial Award she received through Keuka’s Center for Experiential Learning.  The scholarship assists students pursuing culturally oriented Field Periods and is named for the late Brown, a member of the Class of 1963 who spent her junior year as a Norton Scholar in Switzerland.

“This is a big deal,” said Caparulo, explaining that when she got the phone call announcing her award, “I was practically dancing around my apartment.”

Caparulo said she anticipated one major difference at the Renaissance School would be a greater submersion of students into the deaf lifestyle and culture, differing from here in America, where deaf students may attend school during the day but go home to hearing families at night. Whereas some students may not experience sign language at home in hearing families, that “barrier” would not be in place at a residential school exclusively serving the deaf, she said.

“This will be an experience that will allow me to incorporate other aspects and other ways of doing things and learning and things I probably can’t even imagine,” she said.

One Response to Teaching Sign Language in Senegal

  1. karen chaffraix says:

    Hey there, Peace Corps volunteer, Karen Chaffraix here, in Senegal. I am interested in Caparulo’s experiences at the Dakar school, as my little “brother” here in Senegal is partially deaf, and I’m interested in checking out this school for him.

    Please ask her to email me, if possible. Thank you so much!

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