Faith guides deaf student’s life

Brittany Tankersley | Photo Editor

By Ana Ruiz Brictson | Staff Writer

Since being born deaf, Waco sophomore Joshua Olivarez has long relied on faith as his strongest motivation.

Olivarez said he has always faced challenges — many of which his parents, teachers and interpreters have helped him overcome. He said they taught him how to talk to hearing people as well as English as a second language.

“Deafness limited my ability since I couldn’t hear everything people said,” Olivarez said via message interview.

Olivarez said having faith be an important foundation in his life has allowed him to get through tough times when he felt he was on his own.

“I can’t do it without God because I have neither strength or confidence,” Olivarez said. “He gave me everything I needed. He helped me many times during my lifetime. He is why I’m at Baylor and working toward my degree.”

Brooke Foit, one of Olivarez’s best friends since middle school, said she has seen his devotion to God firsthand and has seen how he has overcome many challenges.

“He leans on Him in all walks of life, and God continues to bless him every day because of it,” Foit said via phone interview. “As hard as it has been for Josh, he’s always looked to Christ for strength.”

Foit said when they first met, she began to teach herself the alphabet in American Sign Language (ASL). Later on, Olivarez taught her words she could spell through FaceTime calls. She said he was a great teacher.

One of the main challenges Foit said she saw Olivarez go through was the way hearing people perceive him.

“A lot of people are intimidated by his deafness, which is understandable,” Foit said. “But a lot of people have missed out on an amazing friendship because of the fact they don’t want to learn ASL, or they’re scared of messing up.”

Additionally, Foit described Olivarez as patient, understanding and eager to help others learn how to communicate with him.

“When I mess up, which is often, he simply smiles, corrects me and we continue the conversation,” Foit said. “[There is] no shame with Josh.”

Foit also said during the pandemic, masks were difficult for Olivarez, given he was unable to tell when someone was talking to him.

Olivarez arrived at Baylor in the spring 2022 semester, and he said he has met wonderful people since.

“The staffs encourage me and made sure I had everything I needed,” Olivarez said. “I also made friends. They have different backgrounds than mine, which was exciting.”

After being introduced to the Office of Access and Learning Accommodation (OALA) by his adviser, Olivarez said it has done a great job ensuring that it met his needs, such as setting up interpreters and note-takers in his classes.

Language technology coordinator Dr. Larry Umberger said via translated interview that he has noticed Olivarez as a very memorable person with a positive attitude. He also said Olivarez is very easy to understand.

Umberger met Olivarez approximately 10 to 12 years ago at a Waco Association of the Deaf (WAD) event. Both of them live in the same area in Waco and are a part of the same community.

“So, when Josh was little, I could see that Josh naturally became an American Sign Language (ASL) user, in deaf-culture environment,” Umberger said. “Also, Josh learned how to be able to communicate with his ‘hearing’ peers or with hearing through technology. He understands that most of his peers may not know how to sign with him, but he adapts pretty well. He has great patience.”

Umberger said while signing, an individual must use facial expressions to express both grammatical information and emotions, especially within the eyes. He said it is important to be able to form signs accurately in the hand shape.

According to Umberger, time and patience play a significant role during the process of learning ASL, and it can be a challenge to speak English and sign ASL. They both have different modalities and are entirely different in their own syntax, semantics and structure.

“So as non-signers, they should attempt to use gestures, expressions, body positions to communicate with deaf people instead of attempting to speak with them,” Umberger said. “Deaf people, like Josh, would easily understand them.”

Olivarez said regarding his faith, he does not consider himself a religious person, as the word ‘religion’ is mainly based on following laws and traditions.

“It doesn’t teach the people how to build a relationship with God like Father and his relationship type and friendship,” Olivarez said. “There are many things I want to teach people — the same thing as God taught me.”

Olivarez said in high school, he began to hear God’s voice invite him to His presence.

“That’s when He changed the way I see,” Olivarez said. “Of course, He changed my life too.”

Olivarez said after college, he wants to become a teacher for deaf children.