Deaf School building independent-living house: Students will practice skills they need to make it solo

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Beginning this fall, high school students at the state-run school will get that boost at a new facility intended to help them learn how to make it on their own. The so-called Independent Living House-which may have a catchier name by the time it opens-will be able to accommodate as many as 10 students at a time, giving them a safe environment to practice cooking, cleaning and caring for themselves.

“A large number of students need this kind of program,” Student Life Director Debra Fetzer said through a sign-language interpreter. “It will really help them be ready for the outside world.”

Nearly half of ISD’s 320 students live in dormitories on the school’s Indianapolis campus during the week and spend weekends at home. Still, Fetzer said the IL House will offer them-and day students who choose to live there-a different experience for a semester or two.

“They will be much more confident and prepared,” she said, “and have better control of their lives after graduation.”

The program, loosely modeled after similar efforts at other facilities including the Indiana School for the Blind, has been a long time coming.

Locally based Lilly Endowment Inc. gave the school $1.9 million in 2002 to build the house and a playground for younger students. The state’s public works division put the project out for bid, and eventually hired Architura Corp. of Indianapolis to design the house. Construction should be complete this summer.

Residents’ needs drove the design, Architura partner Michael Conly said, pointing to an open floor plan, oversized kitchen and abundant windows intended to make it easier for students to communicate visually.

And because deaf and hearingimpaired individuals often “shout” from room to room using the vibrations that come from stomping on the floor, the 3,681-square-foot, single-story house was built on a crawl space-rather than a cheaper concrete slab-to give them that option.

“You have to listen to what your clients need,” Conly explained, “and apply that to the physical environment.”

Other special accommodations in the handicap-accessible house will include an exterior “doorbell” that triggers a flashing light inside, similar alerts for each of the five bedrooms, and fire and storm alarms equipped with different-colored strobes.

“You just have to think differently about things,” said Bonnie Sheridan Coghlan, the associate state architect overseeing the project. “Our goal was to have it be as close to ‘normal’ as possible.”

The kitchen is one exception. It was designed to be larger than usual for a family of 10 so it can be used for cooking lessons and other instruction. Conly said it had to be big enough for students and adults to fit comfortably.

Fetzer offered another explanation.

“Deaf people like to sit and chat in the kitchen, [where] there’s a lot of light,” she said. “It’s part of the culture.”

She and other school leaders are still working out the curriculum for the independent-living program, but the idea is to give students a chance to practice the skills they will need once they graduate.

They will plan their meals, shop for groceries and cook for themselves. They’ll also share other household duties, including laundry, and organize their own leisure activities.

Students will “clock in” for work at the house after school, collect a “salary” for performing certain duties, and “pay” their share of household expenses. Although the money won’t be legal tender, the concept is an important one, Fetzer said.

“We want to help them understand the concept of exchanging money,” she said. “Monthly rent, bills to pay, things like that.”

The concept isn’t a new one. Other deaf schools have had similar programs for 20 or 30 years, Fetzer said. The Indiana School for the Blind has had independentliving facilities for more than a decade.

In fact, ISB has three such houses, serving four or five students each, said Superintendent Jim Durst. Two offer semi-independent living, with adults on the premises at all times. The other gives students some alone time.

“We try to give them as much independence as possible, based on their abilities and skill levels,” Durst said.

And it appears to have paid off for students. Graduates who lived in one of the houses as juniors and seniors are more likely to prosper once they move on to college or other endeavors, he said.

“They just seem to be ahead of the game,” Durst said. “Any transition skills we can provide students with is beneficial. … They’ve been through many different situations in a controlled environment.”

The blind school’s program allows students to practice what they learn in their credit-bearing daily life skills classes. They are given a weekly budget and must make the most of it. Adults offer some guidance and make periodic spot checks, but for the most part, students get by on their own.

“This program is much sought after by students,” Durst said. “It helps them develop skills, but it’s also a privilege.”

ISD hasn’t established the criteria for its independent-living program, but Fetzer said it may be most useful to students who have developmental disabilities in addition to hearing loss. Adults will be on site at all times, she said, to provide continuous instruction.

She is confident the extra effort will make a difference.

“The kids really benefit,” she said. “They just need more practice to be successful.”

The need is undisputed, said Donald Tinsley, president of the Indiana Association for the Deaf.

“I think it is wonderful,” he said through an interpreter. “Deaf students … need to learn how to be independent, so they will build their self-esteem.”

If all goes well with the program next year, Fetzer expects ISD will seek additional funding for at least one more independent-living facility on its 42nd Street campus.

Such programs go a long way to helping graduate well-rounded, well-educated students, Indiana School for the Blind’s Durst said.

“It is our major challenge and charge to address a whole lot of different things outside the classroom that are critical to their success inside the classroom,” he said. “Independent-living skills are part of that.”

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