Valdosta Daily Times

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April 29, 2013

Deaf student forms ministry, pushes for advocacy

VALDOSTA — As I walk into the restaurant where Brandon Gaskin works, I search for someone who matches his description, a 19-year-old deaf Valdosta State University student — namely, someone who “looks deaf.” A young man talking with his hands or in need of a tap on the shoulder to capture his attention, and I expect a translator.

Much to my surprise, when I ask his co-workers for Gaskin by name, the woman I speak to doesn’t go fetch him, she calls out his name, and he appears at the sound of her voice, energetic, willing and able to talk with both his hands and his voice.

My experience meeting Gaskin is typical to the average individual with hearing — prejudiced, expecting a handicap and a difficult conversation — and this is precisely the attitude that the young man wishes to dispel with his efforts as an advocate for the deaf community.

Gaskin was born with severely impaired hearing. He cannot hear with his right ear without the use of a hearing aid, and with his left, he cannot hear at all.

Gaskin’s mother noticed he “wasn’t a normal baby” when he made very little sound and didn’t respond to aural stimuli, which impeded his early developmental progress. In 1999, at around age 5, he was enrolled in a program for deaf and hearing-impaired classes, and in the third grade, he received his first hearing aid.

“I grew up in a deaf culture, but I’ve never been to a deaf institute,” Gaskin said. “Halfway through middle school, I was in all mainstream classes with the help of an interpreter.”

The interpreter, an individual capable of hearing, would interpret his lessons in American Sign Language so Gaskin could absorb the information more completely, he said.

The clinical term for Gaskin’s condition is “profoundly deaf,” but he has never considered himself impaired. With his hearing aid and without, he can enjoy music, communicate with his friends, and learn and express himself with ease.

And when it comes to communication, he considers himself bi-lingual.

“I have the best of both worlds,” Gaskin said with a smile. “I can speak and I can sign. There are deaf people who can’t hear, but can only speak, and deaf people who can only sign.”

An avid church-goer, Gaskin first discovered the value in his abilities to communicate with both hearing-able and deaf people as well as his outgoing character when he came to Valdosta in 2011. Gaskin was born in Arkansas, but he grew up in Gwinnett County.

When he began his church for a congregation he enjoyed, he began at One church and attempted to form a deaf ministry but was met with a few difficulties, he said.

“So I didn’t go to church for a month or two, and a friend told me I should come with him to his church,” Gaskin said. “I went to Journey Church, and it reminded me of home.”

With a small congregation, he felt connected to the other members, and attempted to establish a deaf adaptation of the services a second time, and was successful.

Gaskin enjoys interpreting the words of the preacher for the small group of deaf members, as well as “singing” the words to songs in sign, with rhythm.

“There are only a couple of deaf people who come, but a couple is a million to me,” Gaskin said.

Gaskin wants to expand his service to the deaf community, encourage more deaf Christians to attend Journey Church, 1601 E. Park Ave., to establish a strongly knit deaf association for Valdosta and Lowndes County as well as an ASL club at VSU.

“I want to help deaf people answer questions like where they can find an interpreter,” Gaskin said. “I feel like I have the best of both worlds, but the worlds aren’t separate. It’s the same world. We need education and understanding.”

Gaskin will host a town hall meeting for the deaf and those interested in deaf advocacy at VSU June 29. Gaskin is majoring in deaf education and minoring in theater.

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