Karen Linafelter in motion
Image Credit: ISU Photographic Services

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"Feeling the Beat"

Karen Linafelter’s world of sound is much different than most of ours. When hearing music, she can sometimes hear the melody, sometimes the beat. Often, she can’t hear either. She can never understand, she says, sung lyrics.

“I love music even though what I’m hearing is completely different from what a person with full hearing would hear,” said Linafelter, a Great Falls, Mont., native graduated in May with a degree in journalism.

Largely deaf since birth, she has adapted well. Equipped with hearing aids, Linafelter can communicate and “hear” well when communicating one-on-one, simultaneously lip reading and listening. In a crowded room, such as a restaurant or classroom, she cannot hear well enough to follow a conversation and must use sign language, which she began mastering at age 3.

“When there are a lot of people in a big space, the voices really echo and it is really hard for me to follow,” she said. “In a classroom, I really need an interpreter or I am not sure what is going on.”

Her hearing disability, however, hasn’t stopped the 23-year-old from pursuing her greatest passion in life: modern dance. She has earned a dance minor at ISU and has danced with and choreographed for both of ISU’s modern dance groups, the student dance organization DANSON and the Department of Theatre and Dance’s I-MOVE.

Being deaf and an accomplished modern dancer is not as incongruous as it may initially sound.

“I wish I could get other people to listen as well as she does,” noted Lauralee Zimmerly, ISU associate lecturer in dance, who has taught Linafelter in class and worked with her as part of ISU’s two dance groups. “Her deafness is not an issue. I don’t have any trouble communicating with her at all.”

Of course, the way Zimmerly “talks” is as a dance instructor, using strong hand gestures, frequent body movement and her voice — as loud as it needs to be — to communicate. For dance class lectures Linafelter brings an interpreter, but for dance practice she comes by herself. If Zimmerly sees that Linafelter is not getting something in practice, she makes an effort to stand directly in front of her student and speak directly to her.

“Modern dance is not necessarily choreographed to music,” Zimmerly said. “It is choreographed to movement and our own inherent rhythmic structure. Sometimes we add music afterwards to convey the movement. Karen learns dance more from what she feels and not what she is hearing.”

“I really have to know when my cue is,” noted Linafelter. “I go by just counting or by watching other dancers on the floor. Sometimes someone will clap the count so I can pick it up, or I just go by visual cues and memory.

“It is hard to explain. If I can see it and know the count, I can pick it up fast.”

Linafelter is hooked on dance.

“It is such a performance high,” she said. “After a performance there is no feeling like it. It sounds cheesy and cliché, but there is really no way to describe it. It just makes everything worthwhile.”

Linafelter has her supporters.

“Karen is the kind of student who doesn’t let the idea of a disability stand in her way,” said Robert Wood, ISU Deaf Services coordinator. “She is a dancer and journalist and a high achiever by standards of someone who does or does not have a disability.”

Linafelter has faced greater fears than stage fright, which has given her perspective and focus. In high school she received the most unkind Valentine’s gift one can imagine: she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer originating from a type of white blood cell, in February of her senior year.

She underwent chemotherapy and only attended school a couple of hours per day. Among other side effects from the disease and its treatment was losing all her hair.

“I would never wish cancer on anyone because it is a horrible thing to go through,” said Linafelter, now a five-year cancer survivor. “At the same time, you really see how people interact with people who are bald and really sick. I found out who my true friends were at the time. It made me think about, if I didn’t live, what I would want people to say about me. It gave me clarity about the type of person I want to be.”

With her bachelor’s degree taken care of and her bout with cancer over, Linafelter is looking forward to what comes next. She has decided to join the Peace Corps and will most likely go to Africa to help with special education projects next winter.

“I’m really open to any opportunity that comes my way,” she said. “I am an adventure seeker. If something comes up in the middle of nowhere, I’d do that, or if a job opened up here I would do that, too. I’ll go wherever life takes me.”

ISU ADA & Disabilities Resource Center Provides Invaluable Service

Karen Linafelter credits much of her success at Idaho State University to the deaf services provided by the ISU ADA & Disabilities Resource Center.

ISU Deaf Services employs 16 “service providers,” a mix of sign language interpreters and transcribers. Idaho State’s deaf services program is the largest in the state and is one of the largest in the region. During spring semester 2009 there were nine deaf and hard-of-hearing students attending Idaho State who required deaf services.

“Our services provide equal footing for people who couldn’t otherwise hear the lectures,” said Robert Wood, Deaf Services coordinator.

Deaf students can be accompanied to a class by a sign language interpreter or a transcriber. ISU uses TypeWell software that within seconds allows transcribers to provide near word-for-word and meaning-for-meaning transcription from a lecture to the screen of a deaf person’s portable computer.

In a lecture hall with wireless Internet access, a transcriber also can complete their services from a remote location. Lecturers speak into a wireless microphone that broadcasts the lecture to a transcriber. That information is translated and sent back to the person in class, again within seconds. The transcribed lectures can be read at the time, saved to a computer hard drive or printed.

“The ADA system here is wonderful,” Linafelter said. “I love the interpreters and the coordinator of the program. This program is very beneficial and I really don’t think I could have done school without them.”

Andy Taylor
ISU Magazine