Translator on track, companion on campus

Zachary Dignan (Jr.) races to the end of the mile (Alex Chang).

Staff Writer

The anticipation is palpable as the runners take their places on the track. Like any other participant, Zachary Dignan (Jr.) has mixed feelings. As a member of the UHS varsity track team, he is familiar with the level of competition he must deal with. But despite his nerves, Dignan welcomes the mile that lies before him and the adrenaline rush that comes with it. As the gunshot sounds, signalling the start of the competition, Dignan’s feet fly off the track.

Only minutes after exploding off of the starting line, the junior completes his first lap, then his second. After two more circles around the track, he is exhausted but proud.

As a participant in both the mile and two-mile runs, Dignan trains constantly, hoping to improve his times for each event. But his determination is present off the track as well, tangible in his unique upbringing and the way he interacts with UHS students. As a hearing child living with deaf parents, Dignan learned American Sign Language (ASL) before learning English. As a result, Dignan had difficulty communicating at an early age, according to his mother Colleen Voronel. “With sign language being his first language and not being able to speak, only sign, that was a problem,” she said. “[Zachary] didn’t really speak until he was four, after I put him in preschool, because he was so used to signing. Preschool really fostered his ability to speak.”

With the advent of preschool, speaking soon came easily to Dignan. He had learned so much that by the time he entered kindergarten, he could speak English fluently. “In hindsight, I didn’t really have difficulty transitioning from ASL to English, partly because I was so young at that time and also because my parents used ASL to teach me English,” he said.

Communication notwithstanding, Dignan’s parents had no difficulty in raising a hearing child. “If you educate yourself on how to parent, whether you can hear or not, that’s what makes you a good parent,” said his mother said. “Because I educated myself, I didn’t have a problem.”

From time to time, however, Dignan will often forget to sign at home. “Sometimes I catch myself speaking English, and so I’d have to go back and sign whatever I was saying beforehand,” he said. However, Dignan’s family has adopted some solutions to potential issues that may inevitably occur under deaf parents. Dignan explained, “If somebody came in the middle of the night and broke into our house, I would be the only one who’d be able to hear it. That’s why we have a dog in our house.”

Apart from the home, Dignan also uses his knowledge of ASL to communicate with Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) students on campus. “During my freshman year, I would always talk with the students in the 500s, where the Sign Language Zone is,” he said. “Now I know almost every student in the program.”

Dignan’s relationship with the DHH has been especially vital with regards to the track team, where instructions from the coach are important for success. “Since Coach [Eric Davies (Science Dept.)] doesn’t know sign language, I help interpret whenever he’s trying to say something to my DHH teammates,” he said.

Due to his unique perspective, Dignan is able to bridge the gap between the deaf and the hearing, breaking down barriers so that every voice can be heard. Despite Dignan being hearing, he understands and advocates for the DHH community. “Hearing people tend to focus on the one thing that deaf people can’t do. But deaf people can do anything that hearing people can.”

1 reply »

  1. We are Zachary’s paternal grandparents. Our son, Casey Dignan is Zach’s real father. Casey and his wife, Colleen (now Voronel) lived with us while Casey was completing his Master’s degree at Cal State Fullerton. Casey has been an elementary school teacher for twelve years. Prior to getting his teaching credential, Casey was a Senior Social Worker in Children’s Services for the County of Orange. After Zach was born, we cared for him every Sunday for several years, after Casey and Colleen divorced in 1999. She developed a hearing loss at some time which necessitated teaching sign language to Zach. She eventually married her current husband, who has severe hearing and speech impairments. Zachary developed speaking normally when he was a toddler.
    We are very proud of Zachary’s achievements, both in running, school, and assisting other hearing impaired students at University High. He is a hardworking and delightful young man, and we love him very much!
    Deborah and Jack Dignan

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