Emily Renda has the rumpled appearance of a typical 13-year-old softball star after a victory: hat pushed back, uniform stained from the infield dirt, and a grin as wide as home plate.

As shortstop for J.L. Long Middle School’s girls softball team, Emily is “one of my best players, period,” says coach Armelia King. “But when she first came to the team, I had my doubts. I have a special relationship with my kids, all of them, but I wasn’t so sure this would work.”

After all, when the coach yells instructions to the team or when the umpire calls balls and strikes, Emily can’t hear them.

She is deaf and has been since birth. Emily relies on lip-reading and a signing interpreter to guide her through both softball games and school.

“I was panicked when someone told me at the first of the year that I would have a non-hearing child in a class that was oral,” says Sharon Morgan, Emily’s competition-level math teacher. “That was very scary to me. But Emily has won me over.”

Like many hearing-impaired students in the Dallas Independent School District, Emily attended Stonewall Jackson Elementary, which mixes hearing and non-hearing students in classes. As a result, all Jackson students learn sign language.

But when it came time for Emily to transfer to a middle school, she balked at attending Ben Franklin, where most of Jackson’s non-hearing students go.

“Emily said she wasn’t going to go to school unless she could go with her friends at Long,” says her mother, Janet. “And she was serious.”

As a result, Janet and her husband, Steve, began lobbying DISD so that Emily could enroll at Long, even though it meant attending classes geared exclusively for hearing children.

“DISD and their people have been very accommodating in trying to structure the program that each deaf student needs,” Janet says. “They’re not reticent about mainstreaming.”

Long principal Larry Smith agrees.

“We try to get the kids in the least-restrictive environment, but in reality it doesn’t usually work out that way. Kids with handicaps tend to stick together to the exclusivity of others,” Larry says.

“But Emily had some good friends and didn’t want to split up, so she’s been doing great here. She’s the only person who has the will, I guess, to go away from the norm to stay with her friends.”

DISD supplies a full-time interpreter/signing expert (Jim Fisher) to attend classes with Emily. As a result, Emily is enrolled in all-honors classes and is doing well, Smith says. She also is active in swimming and basketball, as well as an extracurricular soccer program.

Emily may be blazing a trail that her sister, Julie, may follow. Eight-year-old Julie also has been deaf since birth. (Brother Evan, 6, has no hearing loss.)

And as for Emily, she’s happy to be at Long and even happier to be playing softball.

“It’s fun and I like to catch the balls,” she says through interpreter Heidi Bimmerle, a DISD teacher. “There is a lot of excitement.”

And is shortstop, typically one of softball’s most difficult positions, difficult for Emily?

“Not for me,” she says.

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