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Signing their team spirit

Published March 12. 2016 09:00AM

PITTSBURGH — Cheerleaders for the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf may not be yelling, but that doesn’t mean their messages aren’t being heard.

Members of the cheerleading squad use hand signals and facial expressions to promote their team spirit. They cheer for the Lions boys and girls basketball teams at the Edgewood school in front of a crowd of deaf and hearing fans.

They are part of the Eastern Schools for the Deaf Athletic Association Division I, which includes schools in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

“Deaf cheerleaders sign the cheers, and they aren’t always quiet — some will use their voices,” says Roberta Gage, cheerleading coach at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. “They just can’t hear. The physical activities and movements and routines are the same as hearing cheerleaders.”

The cheerleaders incorporate a loud drum when their team scores and use it to complement other cheers. With it, they can feel the vibrations.

“We can do things other people can do,” says senior Emily Reno, through interpreter Diana Saunders-Conley, a former teacher at the school. “We like to share school spirit, and cheerleading is a way to do that. I have great faith in this team. We depend on our eyes. There are times that I don’t understand the hearing world. Deaf is normal.”

During a recent basketball game, they gathered in the corner and began cheering — everything from signing “miss it” when the other team was shooting foul shots to leg kicks when their team scored.

Teaching cheerleading to deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals is no different, says Gage, from Gallaudet, the world’s only liberal arts university for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Gage, who also is deaf, uses American Sign Language to communicate.

Joy of cheering

“It’s a joy just watching how cheering benefits everyone — deaf and hearing,” says Debra Hast, coordinator of the University of Pittsburgh’s American Sign Language program. “But the hearing don’t realize that the deaf can cheer — with their hands, with their body and with joy. The deaf do know rhythm. They can feel. Everyone gets a sense of moving along at the same time, as an individual and as a team. It’s exciting. It’s about showing support for one another — win or lose.”

At the School for the Deaf, there are no tryouts. Everyone makes the squad, says head coach Linda Langer. The squad of 18 girls and boys encompasses varying levels of hearing.

“It’s about giving everyone a chance to be part of the team,” says Langer, who is deaf. “They learn quickly. They don’t think of themselves as having a disability. They just can’t hear. It has been a great experience coaching them.”

Cheers are often taught using a count sequence of 1 through 8, just like learning dance steps, Gage says.

Cheer coaches give signs when it’s time to move to midcourt for a cheer, and a light around the backboard signals when play stops and starts.

“I like dancing, and that is one of the things I like about cheerleading,” says senior Janaya Danielle Ray, who has been cheering since ninth grade. “You can be creative in your dance moves. It has been easy for us to learn cheerleading.”

Teammate and junior Iris Jonnae Hereford agrees.

“Practice makes perfect,” she says. “It’s about working together, which is important because we are all part of the same squad. We can do anything anyone else can do. The only thing is, we can’t hear. We need visual cues.”

In November, the squad from Serra Catholic High School in McKeesport helped out at a cheerleading camp at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.

“We really liked the girls at Serra Catholic. They taught us so much,” Ray says. “They respected us.”

A mutual respect

The respect was mutual, says Lauren Wiater, head cheerleading coach for Serra Catholic. It was a wonderful volunteer opportunity, she says.

“None of us knew sign language, but we learned,” Wiater says. “My team showed them the cheers, and they learned to do the same cheers we do. It was different because they learn through beats — they can feel drum vibrations. It turned out to be about more than cheering. I was like a proud mom watching them teach. It’s a whole new language, a whole new world for us.”

The cheerleaders from the School for the Deaf attended a Serra Catholic basketball game.

“It was one of the best moments for me to watch them all interact,” Wiater says. “There was an instant connection. ... They find ways to adapt. It’s admirable. We danced without music. We were supposed to be the ones doing the teaching, but they taught us so much more.”

Serra Catholic junior Kassie Opfar agrees. Friendships were made that day, she says.

“We still text on the phone and have even gone to each other’s games to watch,” Opfar says. “It has been a fun experience. ... It has been very eye-opening to me, and I am in the process of learning American Sign Language to communicate better.”

Extracurricular activities and after-school programs are crucial to deaf and hard-of-hearing students’ overall success, says Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf. It brings forth important personal and social development, such as exploring their skills beyond the classroom setting, making connections with their peers and developing professional goals, he says.

Doing something like cheerleading helps them express themselves.

“Creativity is essential,” Rosenblum says. “There are many possibilities to curtail such challenges. It is important to always seek solutions and ensure that it is accessible for all involved.”

Cheerleader Rain Kelly, a junior, spent some time in a mainstream school before coming to the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.

“It was hard socially because I wasn’t sure if I could trust some of the hearing students,” Kelly says. “I made some friends, but I love being at this school and being part of this team. I don’t feel isolated. I feel comfortable here. Everyone signs so you can focus on your education and cheerleading.”

Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review,

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