By: Alivia Melius
Since 2005, National Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month has been observed in the month of March, allowing for public education and advocacy for the neurological disorder. Unknown to many, students with cerebral palsy are represented in the student body at Tussey Mountain High School. Rachel Lankford is a freshman at Tussey with dystonic cerebral palsy. Dystonia causes involuntary muscle movements and postures and occurs in about one in every six cases of cerebral palsy. Rachel was born deaf, but she has a cochlear implant that allows her to hear when someone is speaking to her. Lankford understands American Sign Language (ASL) and communicates mainly through smiling, pointing and looking at objects or people. Through facial expressions, she discussed her favorite activities and interests.
“I like summertime,” Lankford expressed. “I love swimming; it’s one of my favorite things to do. I’m also an animal lover, but I especially like dogs.”
Like any other teenage girl, Lankford enjoys getting her nails done, getting her hair styled, and she likes playing sports as well. Growing up, Lankford watched a lot of classic comedy cartoons like Tom and Jerry which did not require audio to understand the context.
“She likes to go bowling,” her father John Lankford added. “Most bowling alleys have a ramp that you can put the ball on, and she pushes it down the ramp.”
“Her friends will call her, and they’ll come over and visit, or she’ll go to their houses,” her mother Rebecca Lankford said. “Austin calls her and asks if she wants to come play basketball.”
Sophomore Austin Peters is one of Lankford’s lifelong friends. Through mothers who were good friends and visiting the same church, Peters and Lankford became close quite quickly.
Lankford has accommodations and assistive technology that help her engage with her peers and family and helps her complete schoolwork. After her doctors realized Lankford was deaf around the time of her birth, Lankford received a cochlear implant. A cochlear implant (CI) is a small, complex device that provides her a sense of sound. Unlike hearing aids, which amplify sounds as they may be detected by damaged ears, cochlear implants directly stimulate auditory nerves, bypassing damaged portions of the ear and producing an electronic sound. Through a microphone, the voice of the person speaking to Rachel is directed to her CI.
“Rachel does most of her classroom assignments adapted,” Kimberly Batdorf said. “Instead of using open ended, she uses multiple choice of usually three choices…In group work projects, in just the same way that I ask Rachel to answer, [students] will ask her to answer, or they’ll give her a specific task within the group that would require making choices.”
Batdorf, who is part of Tussey’s Multiple Disabilities Support department, has worked with Rachel for three years.
“She does the same assignments that everyone else does, she takes the same tests that everyone else does,” Batdorf added. “It’s just the way she answers it that’s different.”
“I enjoy school,” Lankford expressed. “I really like STEM courses, like science class, but I also enjoy English class as well.”
Currently, Rachel has been experimenting with a Tobii Eye Gaze device; an assistive tool that tracks eye movement and analyzes it to produce a vocal response based on what is being looked at.
“She is working on learning how to use it,” Rebecca Lankford said. “The idea behind it is that she can look at something, and it will speak for her vocally.”
Students at Tussey Mountain expressed a desire to communicate more with their peers who are deaf and suggested that offering an ASL course at the school would be beneficial.
“You’re going to encounter someone who is deaf at some point in your life,” senior Mahayla Lazor said. “We have students in our school that we could communicate with easier if we had an ASL course. It would be nice to have this as a foreign language option.”
“If we started an ASL course at Tussey, I would take it,” junior Katelynn Hoover said. “It’s always been something that has been very interesting to me. [ASL courses in high school] are not something that you see a lot, and I think it would be nice to [take a class] that’s unique.”
“I think it would be important to know sign language because it would be useful if you ever work with or even have family members that you have to communicate with who use ASL,” senior Aaliyah Morales added.
“If ASL was taught, it needs to be done by a Deaf person or a properly accredited interpreter if there is no Deaf person willing to teach,” Tess Masood said. “Culture also needs to be taught within the class to fully understand the language.”
Tussey Alumnus Tess Masood is a college student at Mount Aloysius College working towards a degree in ASL/English Interpreting.
“When a lot of people see a physical disability,” Rebecca Lankford said, “they think mental disability automatically. She is not mentally disabled at all.”
“She loves when people talk to her. You don’t even have to be really specific about anything, just talk to her. Make her laugh,” Peters added. “She’s a funny girl with a good sense of humor,”
“She has tremendous empathy,” John Lankford said. “If someone’s happy, she’s happy. If someone’s upset, she’s upset. She mirrors whatever emotion is around her.”
“I think it would be important that everyone understands that Rachel can make clear decisions and has clear interests,” Batdorf said. “If somebody in the public who doesn’t know her would like to talk to her, just like you would go up and talk to any other teenager, you would start by introducing yourself and ask a question. Rachel answers pretty clearly by her facial expressions what her answers are. The questions just have to be phrased as ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or choice-based questions.”
“Talk to her and spend time with her,” Rebecca Lankford said. “She understands, and she likes to be included. She likes people to talk to her, not about her or around her, and she doesn’t miss a thing. She has an amazing recall, so by telling stories that she remembers, she will laugh about it as hard as she did the first time. Treat her like you would anyone else.”