Sunday, May 31, 2009

Deaf teen masters four sign languages

From the Lee's Summit Journal in Missouri:

Armin Mehmedovic (pictured) likes to go to the movies and hang out with his friends. His cell phone is never very far from his reach, as he’s constantly text messaging. He’s very opinionated about sports teams, his favorites are Ohio State and the Royals, and insists Zack Greinke is the best pitcher in the league.

Mehmedovic sounds like an average teenager, and he is. So what sets 18-year-old Mehmedovic apart from the hundreds of other teenagers in the Lee’s Summit area? Mehmedovic is deaf.

“There are a lot of things people assume I can’t do because I’m deaf,” Mehmedovic said. “Play sports, go to movies, play games like Texas Hold’em. I can do all those things.”

Mehmedovic and his family are originally from Bosnia.

“I remember some things about living in Bosnia,” he said. “Soldiers and trucks always on the roads and everything being really dirty.”

“It wasn’t safe for us to live in Bosnia anymore with the war going on,” said Mehmedovic’s mother, Emina. “We went to Germany when Armin was 2-years-old.”
Around this time was when the family learned that Mehmedovic was deaf. Emina said when Mehmedovic was only a year old, he suffered from a high fever.

“Armin had a high fever for a few days,” Emina said. “We went to the doctor three different times but they said they couldn’t find anything wrong with him. When we got to Germany we took him to another doctor and we learned he lost his hearing. They think it was because of the fever.”

When Mehmedovic was 3, he started at a school for the deaf. Emina would accompany Mehmedovic to school so she could learn German Sign Language to be able to communicate with her son.

“I wasn’t working at the time so I went with Armin and sat in his classes,” she explained. “It was hard for (Emina and Senad, Mehmedovic’s father) to learn but Armin picked it up right away.”

“I really liked it in Germany, I had a lot of fun there,” Mehmedovic said.

The Mehmedovic family stayed in Germany for six years until the Bosnian War ended.

“After the war was over they said we had two options,” Emina said. “We could go back to Bosnia or come to America. We couldn’t go back to Bosnia, there was no deaf school for Armin to go to and the country was torn apart because of the war. We wanted to stay in Germany because Armin and Dino (Mehmedovic’s older brother) had many friends but that wasn’t an option.”

In 1998, the Mehmedovics moved to Detroit, Mich. where they had family.

After moving to Detroit, Mehmedovic started attending a deaf school, though it wasn’t easy. Mehmedovic’s native language is German Sign Language but when he started school, he was forced to learn American Sign Language.

“It was hard,” Mehmedovic said. “I was leaving my friends but I also had to learn a completely new way of communicating.”

The next year, when Mehmedovic was in third grade, the family moved to Lee’s Summit, where he had to learn yet another language – Signing Exact English.

“It was extremely frustrating,” Mehmedovic said. “I had to relearn everything I already knew.”

Carla Givens, hearing impaired specialist for the R-7 School District, explained that Signing Exact English is more universal than American Sign Language.

“ASL is a language and culture all its own,” she said. “It has nothing to do with English. With Exact English, the person is signing in English order. There’s no so-called ‘right sign language’ to learn. It’s the family’s choice on what they want their child to sign.”

The R-7 School District uses Exact English, rather than American Sign Language, Givens said. Mehmedovic also learned Conceptually Accurate Signed English.

“Armin is the only student in the entire district fluent in four sign languages,” Givens said. “That’s something I think a lot of hearing people don’t think about, that deaf people can be fluent in more than one language.”

At first, Mehmedovic had a hard time learning Exact English and his frustration showed. He would get angry and push his books off his desk, act out or even shut-down emotionally.

“All those things are extremely normal,” Givens said. “Imagine being 8-years-old and not being able to communicate with your teachers, to have to learn an entirely new language at that age?”

Mehmedovic credits his teachers at Prairie View Elementary and Bernard Campbell Middle School with helping him learn.

“I first learned small words like ‘no,’” he said. “And then my vocabulary starting building up and soon I just understood.”

Givens said Mehmedovic can now switch easily between the four languages he knows and will sometimes throw in a German sign to keep the teachers on their toes.

“He’s taught us a few German signs,” she said with a laugh. “He’s still extremely fluent in German because that’s what his family signs at home.”

Mehmedovic’s home is typical of any family. After work and school, Mehmedovic talks with his parents and brother about his day and they watch TV, soccer is a favorite sport.

“My dad and I will talk about politics sometimes,” Mehmedovic said. “About what’s going on in Bosnia or in Germany.”

Currently, the family discussions usually turn to Mehmedovic’s next step in life – college. In the fall, he will start attending MCC – Longview to major in education. Later, Mehmedovic will transfer to Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the biggest school for the deaf in the United States.

“My mom wants me to go to a school closer to home, but my dad keeps saying, ‘Go to Washington,” Mehmedovic said with a smile. “I want to teach history and be a football coach for either hearing or deaf students, it doesn’t matter which.”

“We’re very proud of Armin,” Emina said. “We will support him with whatever he decides he wants to do.”

Mehmedovic likes to tell the story about when he first drove a car. His hands fly as he signs the story to Givens and a huge smile breaks out on his face. As the story continues, he gets more animated and begins to laugh a little.

“He loves this part,” Givens said. “When he almost backed-up into a light pole.”

Learning to drive stories are a regular part of any teenager’s life and Mehmedovic is no different. Darla Nelson, a sign langue interpreter for the R-7 School District, went with him and the driver’s education teacher for a lesson.

“Darla sat in the back seat and I watched her sign through the rear-view mirror,” Mehmedovic explained. “I just drove around for a while. I didn’t like parallel parking and I did almost crash into a light pole. But, other than that I drove perfectly.”

“Armin is a ham, he likes to joke around,” Givens said. “We’re very proud of him and what he’s accomplished over the years. Sometimes, deaf people can feel isolated from the hearing world but with Armin, he’s determined to be just an average teenager.”

“There are some things people assume I can’t do but I guess I like to prove them wrong,” Mehmedovic said.