Language no barrier for Deaf and hearing friends
OKLAHOMA CITY − It’s been nine, long years since Wilma Rehman last saw Jaime Lopez. The friendship that made them as close as family has survived double language barriers, a near-fatal illness and relocation to the other side of the country. In spite of the strong bond between them, Lopez, who is deaf, has never spoken to Rehman.
At their recent reunion in Oklahoma City, they communicated through a sign language interpreter who joined them, Lopez’s fiancé Amparo Amaya and other family members only a few days before Deaf Awareness Week, celebrated Sept. 21 through Sept. 27 in Oklahoma.
When they first met, Rehman, then age 21, was a certified bilingual instructor, working with non-English speaking students in the language lab at Clinton Middle School. When Lopez came to Rehman’s lab at age 13, his hearing loss had prevented him from learning English or Spanish, which was his family’s first language.
“I’m deaf, and when I came to Clinton Middle School in 1992 I didn’t know how I was going to fit in,” Lopez explained. “All I could do was work on math because I didn’t understand anyone. It was very hard.”
Rehman, who was not trained in sign language, worked with the school counselor to identify the Oklahoma School for the Deaf in Sulphur as the best educational option for Jaime Lopez.
By coincidence, the School for the Deaf and the Disability Determination Division, where Rehman works as a customer service representative today, are both divisions of the same state agency, the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services (DRS). In addition, DRS’s Vocational Rehabilitation division provided career counseling and paid for Lopez’s technical training after high school.
“There was a deaf teacher there [at School for the Deaf], Jeff Cooper, who taught 7th grade,” Lopez said. “My first deaf teacher! He had a lot of patience. He had a hearing aid, but he was deaf.”
Cooper, who now teaches kindergarten, began his 17th year at the school in August.
“At first, I had to keep making baby steps to improve my sign language and English,” Lopez explained. “Mr. Cooper used pictures, like the sun, had me draw it, look at the picture and learn the sign and the word.”
For seven years, Lopez enjoyed attending OSD classes Monday – through Friday and went home to his family on the weekend.
“I was happy to be at the school,” Lopez said. “I liked math and history and science. I was in football, played basketball and track.”
Wilma Rehman, Jaime Lopez and their families stayed in touch. She attended the junior prom with Lopez and sat with the family when he graduated from the School for the Deaf in 1997.
When Lopez graduated again in 1999 from the two-year automotive collision technology program at Moore Norman Technology Center, Rehman was there. He excelled at straightening metal, removing dents and replacing damaged parts on vehicle bodies and frames, earning a certificate recognized by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE).
Shortly after graduation, Lopez followed family members to Atlanta and accepted a job at Abra Auto Body and Glass.
“Moore-Norman’s body shop program was a good program,” Lopez explained. “They really trained you, so once I showed my boss that I could communicate well in my own way, the job worked out. Now the boss wants me to get more training, learn more about body shop work to get another certificate.”
One more big challenge stood in Lopez’s way -- a near fatal attack of leukemia in 2003, which led doctors to give him two months to live.
“It was close -– I almost died -- had long stays in the hospital two times,” Lopez remembered as he and Rehman fought back tears. “My mother thought, ‘First the language, then this terrible sickness!’ But she prayed over me every day and read the Bible.”
“My body was broken down with so many holes and bruises. I lost a lot of weight, all my hair. I was at the point I almost gave up, but you got to show you can fight, and I came back around.”
The turning point was a transfusion from Lopez’ sister Imelda. In January 2009, Lopez will take his last bone marrow test and be declared cancer free.
After a video phone romance, Lopez returned to Oklahoma to claim his future bride, Anparo Amaya, in late August. Their wedding will take place in Atlanta, but, first, Lopez wanted her to meet his good friend, Wilma Rehman, the teacher who cared.
“She is a special person,” he said “I really appreciate that she helped me find the School for the Deaf when I needed it.”
On Aug. 23, Amaya wore her white wedding dress and Lopez dressed western chic with a cowboy hat for a pre-wedding celebration attended by family and friends in Clinton. Together they danced the balz, the traditional Mexican wedding dance. Of course, Wilma Rehman was there.
“I am so happy for Jaime,” Rehman said, “-- happy for him because she makes him happy.”
The Oklahoma School for the Deaf offers residential, outreach and satellite pre-school education options for children who are deaf or hard of hearing. In celebration of Deaf Awareness Week, the students presented a program in the school auditorium at 1100 E. Oklahoma Street in Sulphur. The entertainment featured the Performing Arts Company (PAC) dance team, a presentation on technology for the deaf, a video introduction to the campus and video interviews with deaf adults.
For more information about Oklahoma School for the Deaf, visit www.osd.k12.ok.us.
or phone the school toll free at 1-888- 685-3323. To find out more about employment programs for the deaf, phone Division of Vocational Rehabilitation at 1-800-845-8476. The numbers are accessible by telecommunications equipment for the deaf.