For Ellen Austin, it all started at a department store jewelry counter when she was in high school. As Austin waited her turn to purchase a pair of earrings, she observed two women trying to communicate with the salesperson behind the counter. There was a problem: The two women spoke through sign language, and the salesperson did not.
“I thought to myself, ‘If only I knew how to sign, I could help this situation,’” said Austin.
That exchange led Austin to dedicate her life to deaf education and eventually to Radford University, where she helped to spearhead the only deaf education preparation program for the Commonwealth of Virginia.
The program was born from a critical shortage of teachers for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, said Lissa Power-deFur, professor and graduate program director for communication sciences and disorders at Longwood University. In 2001, Power-deFur was responsible for speech and language programs at the Virginia Department of Education. “It was obvious that, if we were going to make improvements in the services we were able to offer our K-12 students, we needed a program to train teachers in deaf education.”
“Other universities, including the University of Virginia and Longwood, had tried in the past to offer deaf education degree programs, but budgetary and staffing constraints had proved problematic,” said Power-deFur. Knowing that any future program would need financial support from the state for success, she worked within budgets at the Virginia Department of Education to find funding. The next step: finding the right university to house the program.
Power-deFur had previously worked at RU and knew the expertise the university could bring to the table. She made the trip to Radford to meet with her former colleagues to discuss the possibilities with them.
“Everyone was really open to the idea, despite the challenges that existed. They were willing to take a risk, and it paid off.”
It was also Power-deFur who brought Austin’s name forward as a person who would have not only the experience but also the enthusiasm to lead the program. Austin had taught children with hearing loss in public schools for 22 years, including 15 years as coordinator for the Roanoke Valley Regional Program for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
While Austin had originally planned to focus on continuing her education in the field as opposed to a new career move, she agreed to try her hand in a different type of classroom.
“It was absolutely Ellen’s passion that led to the successful creation of this program,” said Pat
Shoemaker, dean of RU’s College of Education and Human Development.