Hearing challenge no problem for new school principal
WHEN Donna Harris decided to embark on a career in special education, she never envisaged that she would make history by becoming Jamaica's first deaf principal.
Harris, who is technically hard of hearing as a result of contracting meningitis at the age of 27, took over at St Christopher's School for the Deaf in St Ann for the new school year in September.
"Becoming the principal of St Christopher's School for the Deaf is a very humbling experience. Being the first school for the deaf established in Jamaica, this school holds the rich history of Jamaica deaf culture," said the new principal of the institution, which opened its doors in 1942.
Harris, who is among just about 50 deaf/hard of hearing Jamaicans who have attended university, is a graduate of the Mico Teacher's College and the University of the West Indies (UWI).
As the new principal, she hopes to work towards achieving a professionally developed staff, which has deaf people as teachers' aides, but also improved academic performance, especially in literacy.
At the same time, she intends to improve on the "I Can, Deaf Can" attitude and raise awareness among the students and the wider school community.
"Being hard of hearing also comes with its own set of challenges and I am put in a position to create a path for any other deaf or hard of hearing person who wishes to take on such a challenge," Harris said.
"I am not overwhelmed by the challenges of the job; I am more overwhelmed with fitting into a position that was 'cut out' to match hearing persons and making it a job for any able person," she added.
Harris worked at the Jamaica Association of the Deaf's preschool in Papine after leaving UWI in 2007 before being accepted for this new position.
Asked what she sees as the future of the deaf community, she said "more government and community support".
"With discipline and hard work, becoming aware of the valuable resources in the deaf community and knowing how to harness those resources to develop our school and community programmes, I imagine that in a few years deaf education will be getting a lot more recognition and respect from the various ministries in Jamaica and a lot more community support," Harris said.
"I believe that, as the public sees deaf persons taking up respected positions and managing them well, they will begin to recognise that being deaf does not limit [the individual] and the stigma attached to deafness will slowly begin to peel away."
Harris, who became deaf a few years after leaving Mico Teachers' College, said looking back, it was mere curiosity that brought her into special education but she does not regret it because she has developed a keen passion for young children.
"I love to work with them," she said.
Deaf culture facilitator at the school Yulanda Parish, who is also deaf, was among those happy about Harris's appointment.
"I believe that having a deaf principal will influence the students to be more accepting of who they are as a deaf person and that there is hope for them in the job market," Parish said. "It also shows them that they can achieve anything they want as long as they work hard for it. This is the motivation they needed to help them work harder in school. The roles are starting to change."
In recent years, the Jamaican deaf community has had much to celebrate. The Road Traffic Act was recently changed to allow deaf people to obtain driver's licences without barriers.
Deaf Sports Jamaica, an organisation established by deaf people in 2010, sent four athletes to compete, for the first time, at the World Deaf Athletics Championship in Canada in July 2012.
Also, Cassandra Whyte, winner of the first-ever Miss Deaf Jamaica pageant, went on to win the Miss Deaf International 2011 title and travelled to places such as America, Africa and Turkey.