ALTHOUGH IRIS MARTINEZ is classified as "deaf," she can hear some sounds. "If the volume is turned up high enough when music is played, I can tell what the beat is," she says.And, like all deaf people, Iris can "hear" vibrations through a medium other than air (such as wood) with her sense of touch. But for purposes of conversing with other people, she must rely more on her eyes than her eyes.

Unfortunately, Martinez, a 34-year-old housewife, was not taught any kind of sign language during her childhood. As a result, her skills in reading and writing English, which she could have developed through the use of sign language, were kept at a low level. "I didn't learn anything in the [regular, hearing] high school I went to," says Martinez. "My English was so bad I could never figure out what was going on. After a while, I lost my motivation and stopped trying."

Then, about a year after graduating from high school ("They had to let me go"), Iris met the man who later became her husband. He is hard of hearing but not deaf and is pursuing a degree in social work at Gallaudet College. It was her husband who introduced her for the first time to a social environment in which sign language was accepted and widely used. Martinez went on to enroll in the Adult Basic Education program at Gallaudet College and it was there that she has acquired, with the help of instructors who emphasize "total communication" (both signing and speaking), a strong foundation in English grammar and vocabulary. Since then, "everything has gotten better," she says. g"I can read and write better and this has helped me to sign better too [since some types of sign language, though not all, are based on English grammar and vocabulary]. Without signing, I didn't have so many friends. Now I'm much more confident with people. I can express myself better."

Iris says she enjoys her basic education classes, but does not plan to go to college. She loves to draw, paint, cook, work with crafts, and above all, dance. She does "all kinds of dancing -- African, South American, Chinese, ballet, belly-dancing, disco, everything. People are amazed at what I do."

As to whether she thinks taking the courses at Agllaudet College "changed her life," Iris is emphatic."I changed my life," she signs. "The courses helped."