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Deaf, not disabled

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Lauren Callahan
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Aspen Camp

One of the valley’s oldest nonprofits is tucked away under Snowmass Mountain. It’s a summer camp - offering attendees a real taste of nature. The campers can see stars and mountains - but they can’t hear the birds or rushing water. It’s the Aspen Camp of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

It’s a beautiful summer day and the third session of camp has just gotten underway. Already friendships are being formed as the children clean up after lunch time and then move on to drama — acting out different kinds of animals. Camper Calgary Trapani from Maryland said he had been begging his parents for years to attend Aspen Camp.

“I wanted to come for the longest time, but my mom said no,”  signed Trapani through an interpreter. “But finally, this year, she said I was ready and now I’m here and it’s been great.”

Executive Director Dr. Lesa Thomas has been with the camp since 2009. She said she’s in the exact place she’s supposed to be. Three decades ago a friend who wanted to learn American Sign Language (ASL) coaxed a pregnant Thomas into attending a class with her. Thomas was pretty bad at signing (she failed the class) but she registered to take it again. It was during that second class that Thomas discovered her newborn daughter was deaf. All these years later, it’s still an emotional turn of events.

“It’s just that I feel like I was given the opportunity to do something really important,” said a choked up Thomas.  

One of the biggest controversies in the deaf community is the use of sign language. There’s a thought that teaching deaf children to sign will inhibit them from learning to talk, but Thomas disagrees with that train of thought.

“My personal opinion is why not use all options?” said Thomas. “Connection is what's so important, connection is what makes us human. So the connections that the kids make impact their lives and they can go back to school and be the only one for another year and then come back to camp and get their deaf community again.”

Growing up deaf, you are very much alone. Either you are the only one like you in a public school, with very little resources for participating in educational and social activities; or your parents have sent you away to a school for the deaf, and you spend your formative years removed from your hometown and family.

The Aspen Camp serves as a constant for many of the campers who return year after year.

Riley, a deaf dog is the camp mascot, and the majority of the staff are deaf. This gives the children positive role models, but also offers employment to a segment of the population that finds it very hard to find work.

There’s also a lot of just normal summer camp activities - arts and crafts, rafting, cleaning the cabins and writing letters to home.

And the kids that attend are normal kids. They have their hoodies on, earbuds in, mostly listening to rap, or other music with heavy beats, because of the bass.

Eight-year-old Magdalene Utley from Riverside, Cali. is a talkative camper. She’s so proficient at ASL that she can spell out words like “mosquito” as she describes her surroundings. She loves animals and is thinking about becoming a vet. But recently she’s been inspired by Nyle DiMarco who won Dancing with the Stars and photographer Clare Cassidy – both are deaf. She brought a camera to camp so she can start working on her own photography skills.

Both Utley and Trapani go to schools for the deaf, but they know they are looked at differently by other kids.

“They think there is something wrong with us, that we are disabled that we are stupid. In the end I’m going to be a successful person,” he signed.

Next year will be the Aspen Camp's 50th year in operation, more information about the non profit can be found here.