Gabrielle Speach and Jessica Vitale have faced hearing impairments most of their lives. Yet in between their ears, things are obviously in great working order.
The two teenagers used their brain power to help a five-member team capture third place this spring in a national Academic Bowl for deaf and hearing-impaired high-school students.
“I think it’s pretty amazing, because we were competing among the top academic people in the country who are deaf or hard of hearing,” said Gabrielle, 15, who just finished her sophomore year at Our Lady of Mercy High School. Jessica, 17, has concluded her junior year at Nazareth Academy.
The national finals were held April 22-25 at Gallaudet University, a college for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington, D.C. The all-girl squad — which calls itself “The Pink Ladies” — were representing Monroe County Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES 1). They had qualified for the annual national meet with a second-place finish at the seven-state Northeast Regional Academic Bowl March 16-19 in Manchester, N.H.
Academic Bowls are based on subject matter that’s considered high-school level, but the wide range of topics keeps contestants on their toes. The categories are math, science/technology, arts, language/literature, history/government, sports/leisure, current events, deaf studies and geography. Jessica noted that in preparation for nationals, she boned up by watching “Jeopardy” every day.
Questions are posed in writing, with contestants buzzing in and then responding by writing. Answers are displayed on overhead projectors and must be properly spelled and capitalized. Teams advance to later rounds by winning head-to-head competitions with other squads.
The questions come fast and furious, but one sticks out for Gabrielle: What feature reflected Gothic artwork in a painting of a house that was shown? Gabrielle correctly answered that it was an upstairs window. This came at a crucial juncture during The Pink Ladies’ semifinal match at regionals, guaranteeing them a spot in nationals (the top two teams advance).
“I tend to know a lot about art,” Gabrielle said. “Math, sometimes.”
As for Jessica, “literature, possibly. Definitely not math and science,” she said with a laugh. “We all need to work on math.”
Nerves can run high prior to these events, and that’s where the Pink Ladies’ strong camaraderie came into play.
“We would high-five each other and hold hands, the sort of thing a team would do,” Gabrielle said.
Other team members were Rachael Robbins of Clyde; Taylor Vogt of Brighton; and Nicole Williams of Pittsford. Gabrielle and Jessica were very satisfied with their finish at nationals, especially since “the questions were really hard,” Jessica said.
This marked Jessica’s first season with The Pink Ladies. It was the second for Gabrielle, who last year helped the team win its fourth straight regional and place fifth at nationals. Both young women plan on returning next year, and look forward to the regionals being hosted locally by Rochester School for the Deaf (which edged them out for this year’s regional crown).
Gabrielle, a parishioner of Our Lady of Victory in Rochester, has been afflicted since age 3 by sensorineural hearing loss — damage to the inner ear or to nerve pathways from the inner ear to the brain. Jessica, from Holy Trinity Parish in Webster, lost 80 percent of the hearing in her left ear following the removal of a cyst at age 7. In addition, several infections in her right ear have cut hearing on that side in half.
Both young women wear hearing aids and speak fluently, and converse easily in one-on-one settings that allow them to read lips. They maintain lifestyles typical of other teenagers: Both look forward to learning how to drive; belong to youth groups; and take part in sporting activities — Gabrielle as a runner and Jessica as a horseback rider.
Their biggest difficulty, they said, is not being able to pick up all the sounds of what’s going on around them. As a result, they feel excluded from group conversations.
“Sometimes it’s hard for me to participate fully, and I get frustrated,” Gabrielle said.
But by being in the Academic Bowl, they get to bond with people who have traveled similar journeys.
“It’s nice to know a lot of other people wear hearing aids, and not just older people,” Jessica said.
“It’s going to be something I remember for the rest of my life,” Gabrielle said her Pink Ladies experiences.