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Deaf Student Allowed To Enter Speech Contest

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A deaf high school student from Rhode Island has won the right to participate in a national speech contest sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Shannon Merryman, a 16-year-old 10th-grade student from Bristol, R.I., challenged the veterans' group over a rule requiring participants in its annual Voice of Democracy contest to submit audiotapes of their speeches. Students who participate in the contest must write and present speeches on democratic themes.

Ms. Merryman, whose deafness makes her speech difficult to understand, asked instead that she be allowed to submit a videotape of herself making her speech in sign language.

The veterans' organization initially refused her request, expressing concern that a visual presentation would give her an unfair advantage over other contestants.

With the deadline approaching for the competition at her school, Ms. Merryman pressed the issue by filing a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Providence on Nov. 10. The suit was quickly settled, however, after Ms. Merryman and her parents and the veterans' group agreed that Ms. Merryman could use an interpreter to make the audiotape.

"I think the V.F.W. and anybody else that limits deaf people should change their rules,'' Ms. Merryman said in a telephone interview during which her mother, Elaine, acted as an interpreter.

'An Equal and Fair Basis'

Elaine Merryman said her daughter, who lost her hearing at age 2 as a result of spinal meningitis, has attended regular schools, to one degree or another, since the 4th grade. At Bristol High School, where she now attends school, Shannon Merryman uses a sign-language interpreter for her academic classes.

Stephen VanBuskirk, a spokesman for the V.F.W., said the legal action caught the organization by surprise.

"It's the first time this has ever come up,'' he said.

Now in its 45th year, the contest attracts more than 150,000 participants annually who compete for approximately $2 million in scholarships and awards.

"The judges were just not sure they could judge her against other entries,'' Mr. VanBuskirk said, "and we wanted to make sure her participation was on an equal and fair basis.''

He said the dispute has prompted the group to review the program's bylaws to "make sure it's accessible to anyone.''

Shannon Merryman said she plans to continue her efforts next year to persuade the organization to allow her to submit a videotape.

"Sign language is my language,'' she said. "My eyes are my ears and my hands are my voice.''

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