"Why are your ears so big, your eyes so wide and your teeth so sharp?" Dawnella Howard asks, reading from "Little Red Riding Hood" and holding up a brightly colored picture of the wicked wolf for the group of preschoolers gathered around her.
As she reads, teacher's aide Rita Troxell translates the story into sign language for James Daniels, 4, who is deaf. Troxell's hands dance and her eyes grow round with terror, as she evokes the feelings Howard is capturing with her voice. James, who sits directly across from the two teachers, watches intently. At the end of the story, he grins contentedly, as his hearing classmates squeal and giggle.
James and five other deaf children between the ages of 2 and 4 are part of an unusual experiment in day care at Washington's Gallaudet University, the nation's only university for the deaf. The program, which involves 60 children, is an attempt to integrate deaf and hearing youngsters into a single program that serves the needs of both.
Three days a week, the six deaf children attend a Gallaudet program exclusively for the hearing impaired. The other two weekdays, they attend the program at the Child Development Center, participating in activities with 46 children who can hear.
Federal law requires that all handicapped youngsters between ages 3 and 21 receive individually tailored education programs "in the least restrictive environment." For many handicapped children, that has meant mainstreaming or integrating them into regular classrooms.
The challenge of mainstreaming deaf children is to overcome the communication barrier. The center's answer is to teach hearing children sign language. Typically, deaf children learn language, whether spoken or signed, later and less proficiently than do hearing children. As a result, they need intensive help to catch up.
The Child Development Center has created a "bilingual" environment in which all staff and hearing children are taught to sign. In addition, deaf teachers are present in each play group.
Teachers use lots of vividly colored pictures to hold the attention of deaf children. Toy TDDs -- telecommunication devices for the deaf -- are available at which deaf children can pretend to place phone calls, as the hearing children do with toy telephones.
Gail Kessel of Capitol Hill, the mother of 4-year-old Jonathan Kessel who is deaf, says that these days, her son, who used to play by himself, is now a "chatterbox" who likes to tell stories. Occasionally, he even corrects his parents' signing. He plays readily with hearing children, Kessel says.
Deaf children seem at ease, even though they frequently play apart from the hearing children at the center. Through their play, both hearing and deaf children demonstrate that they are trying to understand what it feels like to be the other. At home, deaf children mouth words, refuse to sign and pretend they can hear. Hearing children won't talk and want to sign.
At first, some parents of hearing children were concerned that the presence of deaf children would impede their children's language development. But they have overcome their misgivings, according to Solit, who says they are pleased that their children are learning about deafness and sign language.