TALLADEGA -- When he was young, Paul Millard wanted to be a musician for a living.
Now, as principal of the Alabama School for the Deaf, it’s clear Millard’s career plans didn’t exactly play out the way he anticipated.
“God obviously thought it was a better fit for me to work with people who couldn’t hear the music anyway,” he said with a chuckle.
Millard grew up surrounded by peers like most people do — his peers, however, were mostly people who were deaf and hard of hearing. Millard’s father worked in several deaf schools throughout Millard’s childhood. When he was 9 years old, his dad became dean of students at the Michigan School for the Deaf, and, from then on, the family lived on campus with all of the residential students.
His interaction with the deaf community didn’t stop there, though. Millard said it engulfed almost every aspect of his life. Even his babysitters were deaf.
After his dad took a job at the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind, the family moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina. And during his senior year of high school, Millard went to work there, too. He’s been working in schools with deaf students ever since.
In 1999, Millard moved to Talladega to become the vocational director at the Alabama School for the Deaf. In, 2008, he became principal.
The Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind in Talladega houses ASD, the Alabama School for the Blind and the Helen Keller School for students who are both deaf and blind.
Being around American Sign Language his whole life, Millard always knew how to communicate with deaf and hard of hearing people to an extent.
“It wasn’t until I started working that I really started getting proficient and conversational,” he said. “Unless you’re deaf and that’s your first language, I don’t know that anyone is completely fluent, but I can communicate fairly well.”
American Sign Language is taught to all students at ASD, and all staff members who don’t already sign must learn it.
The institute has commuter students but also offers room and board for deaf, blind or deaf-blind students from all over the state. This, Millard said, is one of the great joys of being ASD’s principal.
“Being a residential facility, we get to see most of the kids … most of their lives — from at least age 3 through 21, or until they graduate through grade 12. We see kids change from isolated to confident kids.”
Millard said some students come to ASD believing they will never be able to attend college or have their dream jobs. His goal, he said, is to prove them wrong and to show them examples of deaf people succeeding.
Having deaf role models within the school for the students to look up to is near the top of Millard’s priority list. In his eyes, representation goes a long way.
“I can’t be an example of what they can be, so I try to hire those examples of what they can become,” he said. “And we’ve got a bunch of great ones.”
Millard said every position at ASD has deaf staff members the students can look up to — house parents, teachers, administrators, bus drivers, maintenance workers, etc. It shows them proof that they can be successful as an adult.
“Deaf and hard of hearing children are just like any other kids,” Millard said. “The kids can do anything, be anything they want, especially with today’s accessibility and accessible technology.”
Technology also plays a large role in shaping the lives of many deaf and hard of hearing people, both in and out of the classroom. Millard emphasized the importance of technology that provides visual aides for an effective learning environment in the deaf school.
“The technology that helps us in the classroom is generally visual to include SMART Boards or some visual computer technology large enough for everyone to see — Chromebooks, laptops, iPads, internet, of course, and Wi-Fi. A lot of Cochlear implants can even connect straight to WiFi.”
Technology also alleviates some of the problems the deaf community faces outside of the classroom. From small things like lights in a home flashing in lieu of a doorbell ringing to American Sign Language apps, texting and FaceTime, Millard said technology has impacted the deaf community in a positive way.
“There’s all kinds of communication technology that wasn’t there at all when I first started,” he said. “Now, with the empowering and the freeing technology, deaf and hard of hearing people can talk by video phone or text just like everybody else.”
Most of the time, hearing truly is the only thing deaf people can’t do, Millard said. They can even enjoy their favorite song as the vibrations of the music come through the speakers.
“To see students achieve when they themselves thought that they were limited in their success and in their abilities, and to see them advocate for themselves,” he said. “It’s the reason we’re here.”
Jessica Ballard is the standards editor for The Plainsman at Auburn University.