My letter, 26 years later

Video description: TSW owner Trudy Suggs, a white woman with brown shoulder-length hair, is wearing a purple v-necked sweater that ties at the neckline.  She is seated in a corner with brown bookshelves on her right and a sea blue wall on her left.

One of my favorite teachers, Barbara Turner, found an October 1990 letter I wrote to Silent News, a newspaper I later served as editor of for two years. As I re-read the letter (found at the end of this article), I was struck by what I wrote back then, especially given that I was only 15 years old.

My letter to Silent News, October 1990In 1990, I was deep in the trenches of what was then a deeply emotional discussion taking place everywhere. I remember sitting down in frustration after reading a few articles in Silent News, and pecking away on my electric typewriter. My perspectives stemmed from what I saw on a day-in, day-out basis. Today, I have mixed feelings about what I wrote (especially some of my word choices), although I do staunchly believe, as I did 26 years ago, that “a student’s best educational setting can only be determined by the individual — the child.”

I’ve also come to understand so much more about the mainstreaming versus deaf school controversy, and I’ve watched the pendulum swing back and forth. I’ve recognized that one of the challenges is ensuring that each family has full awareness of all the consequences of either choice. Most importantly, I’ve become a mother to four deaf children.

Looking back, I realize now just how oppressive many of the teachers were towards us Deaf students, except for Ms. Turner, in terms of audism, linguicism, and the most basic of respect. To be fair, that was the norm back then and still is the norm at so many schools today. This oppressive attitude spilled over into our daily perspectives of ourselves; I’ve written extensively about how I struggled with my self-esteem and identity because of these teachers. It’s bittersweet to think of how Deaf students, including me, thought we were “lucky” to be mainstreamed when in reality, this was dysconscious audism at its finest. We simply were indoctrinated to believe that hearing was better.

With that said, I was so fortunate to have had access to a Deaf family, the Deaf community, publications like Silent News and Deaf Life, and most importantly, Deaf friends and role models. My classmates didn’t necessarily have this same access, except through the three deaf families at my school. After all, the nearest deaf school was about four to five hours away. The school we attended didn’t really expose us to deaf role models on a consistent basis, although we did have guest speakers and attended a very few events with deaf students from other schools.

Let’s take a quick look at some of what I wrote.

“Some deaf students, in my opinion, will perform at their best abilities in mainstreamed settings, such as I do.”

Actually, I sucked at school. I was never a great student, and I never felt as if I was academically or even personally smart. I would struggle in class, trying to understand why I couldn’t follow along. I had to put up with teachers’ scorn, because they had higher expectations of me given that my papers said I was gifted and had skipped two grades at another public school. Today I realize I struggled because the interpreters weren’t qualified for the most part, and I didn’t have direct communication access. I had attended a deaf school for a year, but it wasn’t the best option at the time; also, my mother got remarried and we relocated to the Chicago area. Even though I was one of those students who participated in a million extracurricular activities and had a lot of hearing friends and even a hearing boyfriend, I never felt as if I really fit in. In between classes and after school, I would always run to my deaf friends and drink up every minute with them.

If I could do it all over again, I would probably have requested better interpreters, or perhaps homeschooling — or found a way to go to a deaf school again. Even with the best interpreters, the access still would not be equivalent to the access at deaf schools.

“I think all the controversy over whether to mainstream or to put a child in a residential school is overly absurd. . .

But I think it is totally ridiculous that people battle endlessly . . . Come on, let’s stop whining about this issue and concentrate on other things such as bringing deaf awareness into the hearing world and promoting deaf rights.”

Yikes. “Absurd,” “ridiculous,” and “whining” aren’t words I’d use nowadays. The controversy, which persists to this day especially in light of so many deaf schools closing, is a very serious topic — especially given the dramatic increase in solitary mainstreaming of deaf children. Even so, I thought, and still believe, that this controversy is putting the horse before the cart. The more pressing issue is ensuring that every child has access in the form of sign language along with whatever other communication mode(s) are accessible, and that every family has full information and is fully educated and aware of the importance of cultural and linguistic access in all aspects of the child’s life. Only when this has been achieved can we focus on educational options.

“Going back to my statement that a child can succeed in a setting that he feels most comfortable in, I can say that I know of many people who are thought of as role models today that come from both types of school. . .I do have a lot of hearing peers. So do a lot of the other deaf students in my school. But those deaf students and I socialize with deaf people outside of school — which counteracts with the often-found misconception that students who are mainstreamed are not proud of their deafness, do not socialize with other deaf people, and are sheltered from the deaf world.”

I still agree, but I also recognize that even with the oppression students at my school faced, we still had access to resources that are not available to many deaf mainstreamed students, such as direct instruction in ASL, Deaf-centric extracurricular activities, and even books and publications about ASL and Deaf people. Unfortunately, it’s even more of a fact today that so many mainstreamed students do not have access to or awareness of the Deaf community.

My high school also had a critical mass of deaf students — about 80 — as opposed to only 5 or 10 students. This was imperative, because it enabled us to have our own sub-groups, our own culture, and even our own vocabulary (just ask me how we signed “fump” or “gross”). The most important thing is that we developed a network among ourselves, and through the deaf families and extracurricular activities at school found other deaf people. Even so, this critical mass is nothing like the one I see at my children’s school nowadays, and I now fully realize just how much I missed out on.

“And I also know that residential schools are very remarkable in producing people that achieve so much for the deaf world. This does not need to be even said because it is almost a granted fact.”

Unfortunately, we do have to say this, because residential — or rather, Deaf schools — have gotten such a bad rap especially in the past 50 years. We need to go back to basics, and recognize that many people’s ideas of what deaf schools offer are often outdated and rooted in the outdated concept of “institutionalization.” Many Deaf schools offer a variety of programs and services, including audiology and spoken language, and offer comprehensive education. It’s also imperative to recognize that most of the community leaders in our storied Deaf history came from deaf schools, and that many community leaders also come from deaf schools. For example, the receptionist at the White House, Leah Katz-Hernandez, attended a deaf school. Claudia Gordon, a White House lawyer, attended a deaf school. Nyle DiMarco, the hottest star to hit Hollywood, graduated from a deaf school. The recent chair of the FCC disability office, who left the position a few weeks ago, Greg Hlibok, also comes from a deaf school. The list goes on and on.

Nowadays, that demographic may be changing — through no fault of our own. With mainstreaming forced upon more deaf students as a result of an increased reliance on technology, the closing of Deaf schools, dissemination of naccurate information, and a general lack of resources in many parts of the country, more and more community leaders will come from mainstreamed settings. Some of them have or will become successful leaders if they have tremendous resources and support at home; others will probably struggle with all the same issues of fitting in, self-esteem, language barriers, trying to do what others expect of them —on top of normal development challenges such as puberty and socialization. So it’s important for us to continue identifying successful people who have happily embraced the Deaf community and its culture, heritage, and language.

“If we could get more people to be aware of deafness and its glorious culture, then we could get parents to make the best and RIGHT decision about where to put their child for the best possible education. We do, after all, have to realize that each child is an individual and each has his own way of learning.”

Even as passionate as I am about the importance of Deaf schools and reviving the critical masses that once existed at every Deaf school, I still believe that each child has to have choices. If we could bring Deaf school numbers back to what exists at schools like Maryland, Texas, and Indiana, we’d have choices at each and every Deaf school instead of “resorting” to mainstreaming as a choice. By choices, I mean choices in educational methods, communication modes, services, courses, social circles, and so much more. Every child should have access to these choices without having to sacrifice full, complete, direct access to education and every aspect of school — especially socialization and world knowledge.

I will say this, though, as a final statement: many of my fellow Deaf students at Hinsdale South High School went on to have Deaf children. The majority of us, including me, have chosen to enroll our children at deaf schools. This alone speaks volumes.

Letter to Silent News Editor, October 1990

Dear Editor:

In response to all the letters about whether to put a deaf child in a mainstreamed setting or a residential setting, I would like to add some of my own comments, if I may.

I am a 15-year-old senior at Hinsdale South High School in Darien, Illinois. Yes, I am mainstreamed for all of my classes with the use of an interpreter, but I am also a former residential school student. So I can safely say I have an idea of what both worlds are like. And regardless of all the arguments I have absorbed about which school gives a student a higher reading/writing level, I strongly believe that a student’s best educational setting can only be determined by the individual — the child.

Some deaf students, in my opinion, will perform at their best abilities in mainstreamed settings, such as I do. Others will find mainstreamed settings too difficult or too easy and lean toward the residential school. I think all the controversy over whether to mainstream or to put a child in a residential school is overly absurd. If one scoffs at mainstreaming and says that deaf schools are the only way to go, or vice versa, then I believe that is a very subtle kind of discrimination. Who is one to say what another can do? This is a free country, and every one of us is an individual. I believe that a child can succeed anywhere he feels like he fits in the most.

My most vivid memory of leaving the residential school I attended was a staff member coming up to me and calling me a “traitor” to my face — simply because I was transferring to a public school with a program for deaf students. I will never forget the disgust and fury in his face as he spelled out that word to me. I was only 10 at the time. I think that’s exactly the type of picture that someone would NOT want a child to have.

Going back to my statement that a child can succeed in a setting that he feels most comfortable in, I can say that I know of many people who are thought of as role models today that come from both types of school. I come from a deaf family; so I know a lot of deaf adults who are very successful individuals and many of them come from public schools with a program for the deaf; and yet others tell me of their residential school experiences. I do not have an outstanding and superior level of speech — I firmly believe in the use of sign language, so do not think that I am a deaf person who marches around in life being oral. But I do have a lot of hearing peers. So do a lot of the other deaf students in my school. But those deaf students and I socialize with deaf people outside of school — which counteracts with the often-found misconception that students who are mainstreamed are not proud of their deafness, do not socialize with other deaf people, and are sheltered from the deaf world.

True, many mainstreamed people do need to be educated about the deaf world, but we are fortunate to have very many teachers at Hinsdale South who are knowledgeable about this. And there are students who have participated in all kinds of sports, such as soccer, basketball, baseball, and so on. And I am one of the editors of the school paper. And there are countless clubs that our deaf students have participated in. The program at Hinsdale South is living proof that NOT all mainstreaming programs are total failures.

And I also know that residential schools are very remarkable in producing people that achieve so much for the deaf world. This does not need to be even said because it is almost a granted fact.

But I think it is totally ridiculous that people battle endlessly about whether mainstreaming or residential schools are the best way to educate our deaf children. Come on, let’s stop whining about this issue and concentrate on other things such as bringing deaf awareness into the hearing world and promoting deaf rights. If we could get more people to be aware of deafness and its glorious culture, then we could get parents to make the best and RIGHT decision about where to put their child for the best possible education. We do, after all, have to realize that each child is an individual and each has his own way of learning.

Trudy Suggs
Westmont, IL

This article can not be copied, reproduced, or redistributed without the written consent of the author.

Full, unfiltered access to ASL and the world

whyisign(Reposted from my Facebook page, February 13, 2016)

My (deaf) daughters and I went out for dinner, and my four-year-old asked me why it rained. My oldest, eight years old, started explaining, but the younger interrupted and said, “My friend says it’s because God cries.” I said, “That could be true, too.” We all laughed and came up with different reasons (God sneezing, birds spitting, etc.) — all very silly and cute.

That led to a conversation about why it was cold outside, and how countries below the equator had opposite seasons. I described how the earth rotates daily and around the sun (thank goodness for ASL, because it helped them understand immediately) and how this related to why we count 24 hours and 365 days. I also showed them a few videos off the Internet showing the solar system and all that stuff. 

At that moment, it hit me: how lucky are we?! My girls and I have full access to communication at home and at school/work. I had that growing up, too. I can’t imagine how it would be if we didn’t have this full, unfiltered access to ASL, and subsequently, the world. We *never* have frustrations in communication with each other — not even for the most complex of topics.

That’s why it’s so important for parents like Cam (see previous post) to share their stories. I’m so grateful to Stacey Abrams for creating the Why I Sign page, and even more grateful to all the parents and family members who have responded overwhelmingly to that page. Teach deaf children to speak if it’s really important to you, but never, ever, ever at the expense of sign language or the child. I speak from experience, and so do my children. ‪#‎whyisign‬

The Power of the Written Word

My oldest, six years old, has started to understand how powerful the written word can be. I’ve been marveling at her acquisition of English as a second language and remembering my own acquisition. Still, when I saw a piece of paper on my table last summer, I was stunned. My grandmother, 91 years old at the time, was visiting us from Illinois. She and I have always had a very special relationship growing up; I stayed at her house so often that she was like a mother to me. Actually, she still is like a mother to me. She doesn’t sign other than homemade signs, although she says she wishes she did. She’s tried to learn many times, but has never really succeeded.

DSC00379 - Version 2Grandmother learned my mother was deaf when Mom was three. Like so many others back then, she was told to teach my mother to speak instead of sign. I don’t think she ever imagined she’d be the lone hearing person in my family, my children being fourth-generation deaf on their father’s side.   Whenever she’s at my house, she has never once complained when we all sign without including her—although I often feel guilty about that, and always try to have her know what we’re talking about. I remember asking her once at a restaurant when she was the only hearing person in a group of 11 how she felt being the only hearing person. She said, “I think it’s great.”

My children absolutely adore her for so many reasons, and they especially love her “spin” game where she spins the kids around by their legs on any smooth floor. It’s a sight you have to see to believe. The kids clamor for this game the very minute she enters the house, even as big as they are now.

So, last summer, I was cleaning and picking up random pieces of paper from tables and shelves and countertops. I took a second look at the blue piece of paper in front of me, because I recognized Grandmother’s handwriting. I also thought I recognized my writing, from when I was a child. I thought it was from my childhood. It wasn’t. IMG_4158

My heart warmed as I read it more carefully. It was a conversation my oldest had with Grandmother. I immediately reminisced about when I was six years old. My grandparents lived two hours away from me, and I spent practically every weekend and every break with them. I loved being at their house; it was the only stable home I had until I was much older. My best friend lived across the street from my grandparents’ house, and we made up all sorts of creative schemes. And Maid Rite! The best place to eat in Quincy, hands down.

Since my grandparents didn’t sign, and I didn’t speak, we had to find a way to communicate—especially when my mom wasn’t around to interpret. The answer was easy: we wrote back and forth. My granddad was a man of a few words, but full of mischief, which could be seen in how he wrote. My grandmother was always a wordsmith, the poet in the family. She and I would talk for hours. We’d watch THE PRICE IS RIGHT (which wasn’t captioned back then) when she was home from work, and she’d patiently explain the rules to me, or tell me what Bob Barker was saying. In fact, I credit this for much of my English acquisition, along with having ASL as a first language and reading.

IMG_4156When Grandmother tucked me into bed, she would sit next to me and write in a notebook. She’d ask, using rudimentary gestures, “TRUDY TODAY WHAT?” (“What did Trudy do today?”) I’d tell her what I did, and she’d make me fingerspell the words one by one, or she’d write the sentences out and make me read them. It was my all-time favorite activity with my grandmother. Today, the notebooks are my most cherished documentation of my relationship with her. She was the best at doodling next to the sentences, even though she scoffs when I tell her that her drawing skills are awesome. She still doodles on her cards and letters to me, which I get such a kick out of.

Happy 92nd birthday, Grandmother. Thank you for the loving and lasting impact you’ve left not only on me, but on your great-grandchildren as well.

Copyrighted material, used by permission. This article can not be copied, reproduced, or redistributed without the written consent of the author.

The boy at Target

As I sit here working well past midnight, I can’t stop thinking about the most random encounter at Target last Saturday that lasted all of three or four minutes.

My family and I had just arrived at the store, and my younger two were throwing hissy fits over having to sit in the cart (control, folks; carts are how we control our younger kids in stores). My oldest two were pushing each other and giggling. As I attended to the youngest — deeeeep into her terrible twos, which means she screams bloody murder if we try to make her do anything — I saw a father with two kids walking by. The oldest, an adorable boy with the cutest black-rimmed glasses, shaggy short hair, and a green shirt (soccer game, maybe?), kept staring at us. I ignored him at first thinking he was just some hearing kid fascinated by our ASL or our unruly children. But then I looked up, and suddenly noticed his hearing aids with the coolest green ear molds. He had stopped in his tracks, and was watching us intently.

I was trying to calm my daughter down while my husband was herding the other three. As I looked down at my daughter, I could see, and feel, the boy staring at us from maybe five or ten feet away. He seemed to be eight or nine. His father and sibling had already gone into the dollar bins area, and he was standing there, staring at us with so much interest. As I got my daughter happily comfortable in her seat, I mentally debated about how to react to the boy’s gaze. Should I ignore him? Does he know sign language? What if I try to talk to him and his dad gets upset? What if he doesn’t sign and doesn’t understand what I say? What do I do? Are my kids ever going to calm down?

I glanced back at him and gave him a big smile as I snapped my daughter’s cart belt into place. “Hi!!” I signed, looking at him directly.

The biggest smile came over his face as he excitedly signed back, “HI!” Just then, his father came back, looking a bit unhappy at his talking to us. The boy looked reluctant about having to join his family, glancing back at us twice as he walked off. I hoped to see him again in the store so I could talk a bit more with him, but I never saw him again.

I’ve been thinking about him a lot since then. The look on his face was so filled with hunger and hope. It’s a look I’ve seen a million times before, usually on the faces of deaf children (or even adults) meeting other deaf people for the first time. It’s the look of realization that they’re not the only deaf person in the world, that signing is perfectly acceptable and natural, that we’re all incredibly ordinary people just like them. I am so grateful that I have never felt like the only deaf person in the world, because I’ve always had deaf role models around me from day one of my life. I’ve never gone a single day in my life wondering what other deaf people were like or if they even existed.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about my children and their unfiltered, unlimited access to communications 24 hours a day at home and in school. They will not realize for years to come just how fortunate they are, just like my husband and I didn’t realize how fortunate we were to have deaf families and 24-hour access to sign language. I’m extremely grateful that I can chat with and listen to my kids, especially their references to poop and boogers. I’m also fortunate every single person in my household can argue, joke, and love each other without a single communication barrier, even if it means we (namely me) have to be careful what we say at the dinner table because every word we say gets repeated the next day in school, thanks to my children’s eagle eyes.

I hope that the boy in Target is in an environment where he can sign freely and can be as deaf as he wants to be, to whatever degree. Maybe all my assumptions are wrong, and he’s perfectly happy. I just wish I had paid more attention to him once I realized he was deaf. And I so wish I had said hi sooner.

What have I done?!

IMG_3255small

Yesterday, my three-year-old son instructed me to sit with him and help him make a list for when we go to a hotel. Mind you, we’re not going anywhere anytime soon, but he likes to pretend we’re staying at a hotel. Anyway, he wanted to list things to pack.

I’m afraid my list-making gene has gotten passed down to him.

P.S. The “Draw train book” is in reference to an invisible-marker book that he just got. Don’t ask.

An Epilogue: Can I Speak Now?

This is a follow-up to an article I was invited to write for the NAD Monograph in 1997. To read the original piece, click here.

“A year to the day I was born, PL 94-142 was created. That’s when bureaucrats began to speak for me.”


– From the 1997 “Can I Speak Now?” article 

My Can I Speak Now? piece, written over 15 years ago, is one of my most popular articles. People often tell me that what I shared resonated with them because they, too, had similar experiences and frustrations. As I reread it today, I find it interesting how my perspectives have changed only slightly. The biggest change in my perspectives—at least until 2026—is that I will speak for my deaf children, but nobody else. It fascinates me how my children’s educational experiences are already so different from mine, and yet so similar.

I have chosen to enroll my four children—the oldest being five and the youngest being one—at a deaf school, because it’s clearly the best environment for them at this point in their lives. I also love the close-knit community here. But what I am most grateful for is my children’s unfettered access to communication 24 hours a day in school and at home. This comes from a Deaf-centric—and child-centric—educational environment and home environment.

With that said, one comment I got in response to the 1997 article stands out. Back in 1998, I shared the article with a mother of a deaf six-year-old; I was her supervisor at my then-job at a nonprofit agency serving the deaf community. She was still somewhat coming to terms with her child being deaf, and had chosen an ASL environment for her child’s education.

After she read the article, I asked for her thoughts. Her response was that I “sounded so angry like most deaf people.” This was the last thing I expected her to say, especially given our shared views on deaf education and communication options. Now, in retrospective, I realize it was because she was still new to the community and didn’t yet fully understand that this article and my experiences weren’t written in anger. Rather, it was a honest look at how the educational system has been for so many deaf people. Interestingly enough, later that year during a meeting with me, she got upset at not receiving a pay raise. As I looked away at the end of the meeting, she grabbed my jaw and turned my face so I’d look at her. Looking back at that incident, I realize now she was the one dealing with anger and I happened to be the nearest outlet for her.  I’d love to talk with her today and see if she still has the same perspectives she did back then. Her child is now college-aged, and doing very well from what I understand.

Back to the point: I continue to speak only for myself, because we each have such different experiences, perspectives and needs. I only hope that my children will grow up to become the best experts on what they need—not school professionals, not my husband or me, not anyone else. When they can speak for themselves, that’s when I’ll know I’ve done my job as a parent.

Can we all just get along?

Perhaps Rodney King isn’t the best person to quote, but “Can we all just get along?” is what keeps running through my head as I learn of more and more stories of rivalries between deaf schools and programs – especially those in the same state.

I’m not talking about fun athletic rivalries, but rivalries where families and staff go to great lengths to badmouth other schools, criticizing the quality of education, communication levels, and even the students. This blows my mind. What do people think they accomplish by condemning families and students for choosing specific schools?

A few years ago, I watched a teacher’s face twist in disgust as he said to a student attending a rival school, “Why do you go here? It’s a terrible school. Why don’t you come to my school? It’s got better education, better opportunities. Why would you want to lower yourself by staying at this school? You can do better.” This teacher – who I considered an honorable man until that conversation – didn’t realize anyone was watching him. I was floored because I had never seen this side of him, although I had heard stories. The student’s school was actually a great school with a solid enrollment size; on the other hand, the teacher’s school was struggling with enrollment. To this day, I find it sad that the teacher felt an aggressive pressure tactic was the way to recruit students. But what broke my heart was how the student looked defeated, even embarrassed, by the teacher’s words. [Read more…]

Welcome Addition, Indeed.

This article originally appeared at i711.com.

I received a coupon booklet in the mail recently from Similac, a company that produces infant formula milk. Typically, I put junk mail in the recycle bin, but I opened this one – and I’m glad I did. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have seen this on the included flashcard:

photo of baby signing "drink alcohol"Yup, that’s a baby signing DRINK, as in “drink alcohol.” At first, I laughed at the picture because of its sheer silliness. I thought maybe Similac had the world’s worst illustrator, because many of the other signs were also inaccurately drawn. Then I thought, Obviously a hearing illustrator working with a hearing consultant.

But then I remembered how I had been at Babies R Us, trying not to feel greedy about registering for everything in the store. There, I walked by the books section and saw a whole bunch of baby signs books. I skimmed through them, and not surprisingly, the majority of signs in the books were incorrect, or at least not part of any sign language I knew.

This isn’t about the controversy of teaching sign language to hearing babies but not deaf babies. Amy Cohen Efron’s The Greatest Irony has become one of the most referenced commentaries on this issue, so, I won’t even get into that; we must teach signs to both deaf and hearing babies. I began signing when I was six months old, thanks to my parents having signed to me from day one. That alone shows me the benefits of teaching babies sign language.

The real issue here, for me, is something I’ve mulled over for quite a while. Should we worry about correct sign production, or should we simply try to get babies and toddlers to communicate in whatever ways they can? I used to think that it maybe didn’t matter, as long as babies were being taught signs at least. Now, I think otherwise.

With this flashcard and the books on the market, I am even more convinced that the correct American Sign Language signs must be used, regardless of whether the child or parents are deaf or hearing. While I am aware of how babies and toddlers (including me when I was a tot) often cannot produce “full” signs – i.e., using one finger to sign EAT instead of the whole hand – this doesn’t mean we now have leeway to teach them whatever we think is easier.

After all, ASL has its own grammar, signs/words, and rules. I don’t know how many times I’ll say this for the rest of my life, but people have to learn that. They can’t just make up words and expect the nation to accept the new words, especially if they don’t know the language. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had parents say to me, “Oh! My kid knows sign language!” and then proceed to show me all the wrong signs while I nod with a polite smile.

We, deaf or hearing, should at least try to use correct signs with babies while getting them to communicate in any way possible. This has nothing but positive benefits: they grow up already knowing ASL, even if rudimentarily, and this eventually leads to a more cohesive ASL community for both deaf and hearing people. And we certainly don’t want to mislead people into thinking they can simply invent signs at any time.

A friend, expecting her second child, pointed out that the overused “I Love You” sign is also harder for babies to produce than simply signing “love.”

I thought about all this as I chuckled at the flashcard. I e-mailed Similac and explained what this particular version of the DRINK sign meant. I also mentioned that they would probably benefit from having a fluent, even native, Deaf person involved in this flashcard project, which I thought was a great tool. I also ignored the recommendation that the parent “say the word while signing to emphasize…”; obviously they don’t think deaf children are included in the “baby” category.

I, of course, did not get a response other than a form e-mail. Meanwhile, they’re going to make money off showing a baby how to drink alcohol.

But hey, anything to bring about awareness of sign language for babies, right?

UPDATE (September 21, 2007): I typically get a lot of e-mail after each column, but this one took the cake! Thanks to the group of teachers and deaf people who contacted Similac about the pictures/signs. I was just notified, and I confirmed this by looking at the website itself, that Similac has removed the file from its website.

It’s my hopes that this will lead to more work for deaf ASL teachers who are truly fluent in the language and the techniques of teaching babies (regardless of if they’re deaf or hearing) ASL. And of course, it’s my hopes that this will lead to increased ASL awareness. But I didn’t expect this outstanding response rate, so I must thank each and every one of you who contacted Similac or e-mailed me.

Copyrighted material. This article can not be copied, reproduced, or redistributed without the express written consent of the author.

Why Not For Kids, Too?

rallyThis article originally appeared at i711.com.

An Alton Telegraph (Illinois) article reads in part:

Springfield, Ill. (AP) – About 100 deaf citizens carried placards and used their hands to talk at a silent rally in the State Capitol aimed at supporting legislation that would affect the deaf.

The demonstrators came from all over the state to…testify before an Illinois House committee and meet with Gov. James R. Thompson.

The Human Resources committee then voted 18 to 1 in favor of a proposal to provide communication devices for the deaf in at least one emergency facility in communities with more than 10,000 residents.

I don’t quite remember my first rally, but I do remember Mom sitting me down and talking with me about how we could make our home safer in the event of a fire or other emergencies. Back then, we were too poor to own a TTY, so we had to rely on alternate methods. The next day, a group of deaf people gathered to make signs and flyers; I colored the fireman’s hat on my sign a bright red. Then we went to the state capitol. I remember meeting with Governor Thompson in his office and being in awe of how tall and friendly he was. I was only three years old; Mom was 25. The rally and governor’s meeting were crucial lessons for me.

Today, nearly 30 years later, I continue to believe in the value of children participating in peaceful rallies and demonstrations. As a result of that early exposure – and many other rallies or demonstrations – I developed a lifelong interest in advocacy. I stay active with both state-level and national-level associations serving deaf people not because it’s a “cool” thing to do, but because it’s the only way we can ensure our rights.

There was recently some discussion recently among bloggers and vloggers about whether children should be involved in demonstrations or protests. This dialogue emerged from an incident during the A.G. Bell conference in Virginia last July. A group of people, including an A.G. Bell member, passed out flyers at the conference site promoting the teaching of sign language to deaf babies. The Marriott hotel manager, Jenny Botero, was captured on video trying to take flyers away from one of the people. Botero also grabbed paper from a frightened deaf eight-year-old daughter of a deaf woman, though this wasn’t captured on video. The girl’s mother was understandably furious. One blogger questioned the mother’s judgment and integrity in having her daughter participate, yet never once questioned Botero’s integrity. Regardless of the circumstances, no adult should ever try to intimidate an eight-year-old – or any child – into doing anything to further a cause.

When I read the blogger’s article and people’s comments agreeing that children shouldn’t be involved in events like this, I was saddened. The deaf community is now beginning to associate the word “protest” – or other forms of activism – as aggressive, dangerous and harmful. And this association has serious consequences.

I certainly don’t support dangerous tactics, regardless of results. Not all activism include dramatic events like what sometimes happened during the Gallaudet protests or even the civil rights movement of the 1960s. I should, however, point out that many of the children who were involved with the Deaf President Now protest are now adults, even parents, who have become even more cognizant of the importance of advocating for issues important to them. Many of them have become outstanding community leaders in individual ways. I was 13 when DPN happened, and the protest certainly left its mark on me. It didn’t teach me that we had to resort to violent methods. The protest taught me that deaf people like me were just like anyone else who deserved equal respect and access, and that we could play smart in order to get what we wanted, or rather, needed. It’s still that simple today.

So, to bring the kids or not? Again, it’s simple: the parent has the responsibility of gauging the safety level of each event, whether a rally, demonstration or a protest. The parent also has a responsibility in developing a safety plan should things go terribly wrong – whether at the hands of the protestors or the police or management. And the parent also has the right to decide if a child should be involved or not. Let’s be real: there’s a degree of risk in everything we do, from carrying signs at an event to riding a car (anyone want to compare the likelihood of dying in a car accident to being hurt during a demonstration?).

Besides, any responsible parent would do what my mother did: sit with the children, talk about the issues at hand in as neutral and factual a manner as possible, and then explain why the event is taking place. Then the parent could ask if the children want to be involved or not. Safety should always be a priority, but so should education and awareness.

Even though my first rally was three decades ago, I find myself advocating for the same issues we did back then, which was pre-Americans with Disabilities Act, pre-captioning, pre-Internet, and pre-everything: equality. And if it takes another 30 years of peaceful demonstrations and rallies to achieve equality, so be it. Our children should not face inequality at any time, so what better way to educate them than to include them?

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Land of Opportunity

This article originally appeared at i711.com.

The buzz those days is about how many people around the nation are moving to Indianapolis in order for their children to attend the Indiana School for the Deaf. Numbers being churned through the rumor mill range from 25 new students to over 100 for the 2006-2007 school year. It’s not just Indiana, though; there are other families moving to areas near the Maryland School for the Deaf, California, even Iowa. And this trend across the nation fascinates me.

Sure, this isn’t a new phenomenon. Both deaf and hearing parents have been moving for decades to wherever the best school is for their kids, although deaf parents have considerably fewer choices in terms of American Sign Language environments. Back when I was younger, it wasn’t uncommon for deaf children to go to the next state for school. For instance, during the 1980s and 1990s, many kids in the Chicago area attended the Wisconsin School for the Deaf simply because it was geographically closer than the Illinois School for the Deaf. Even my husband’s parents moved from Chicago to Wisconsin, so that both my husband and his brother could attend the Wisconsin School for the Deaf; the school experienced a surge in students from the Chicago area after St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee closed in the early 1980s.

Parents – in particular, deaf parents – nowadays are much more empowered about language choice and educational quality. Many move to send their children to ASL-English schools. Or they move because they like the superintendent, such as at New Mexico and Maryland Schools for the Deaf. Parents may also move because at these new schools, jobs are aplenty for them – dormitory staff, teachers, administration-level jobs. Family and friends being concentrated in largely “deaf-populated” areas is yet another reason for moving to those areas; social events have always been a major part of the Deaf community. And let’s not forget athletics. Sports is yet another valuable commodity at deaf schools and within the community. In fact, when renowned football coach Andy Bonheyo left the Model Secondary School for the Deaf to take a job at Texas School for the Deaf, a cluster of his players followed him to Texas.

Are there drawbacks to this trend? Sure. Elitism among deaf families at certain schools has proliferated to the point where there are wild stories of great divisions at these schools. I remember a deaf friend – who is from a large deaf family –being furious when a birthday party was listed as “for deaf children only.” His children were hearing and had always socialized with these same deaf kids at community events, yet they were suddenly ostracized because they weren’t deaf. There also seems to exist a level of trying to always better each other at certain schools across the nation. Of course, this isn’t just a ‘deaf school thing’; hearing parents do it too.

It’s also interesting that when a deaf family leaves a deaf school for another, there’s also a degree of resentment by the people left behind who say, “What, they think they’re too good for our school? Wait and see, the kid’s going to turn out bad.” But this isn’t a new thing, either. That was what people said about me when I left the Illinois School for the Deaf in order to move with my mom to Chicago; I like to think I’ve turned out okay.

Even so, this desire to give our children better decisions comes with a amount of agony. I’ve been watching many parents who have deaf children wrestle with their decisions. Since I’m at that age in life where almost all of my friends are new parents, many of them are suddenly rudely awakened that the plan they’ve laid out for their children has to be discarded in favor of the best situation possible for their children simply because they’re deaf. They have the best advice available: their own experiences. My husband and I come from similar family backgrounds but very different educational experiences. We’ve had many discussions about what we’ll do if our children happen to be deaf. For us, and many others, it boils down to key factors such as who the peers in our children’s classes are, who and how good the teachers and support staff are, our children’s needs, and what the educational philosophy of the school is.

As I look at this trend happening across the nation, it impresses me how more and more families are willing to uproot their entire lives, sacrifice good-paying jobs for sometimes lower-paying jobs, postpone or give up their own dreams and goals and move so that their children can attend a deaf school with a top-notch quality. Never mind all these drawbacks; the families are doing this willingly, all so that their children can have better opportunities than they did.

That, to me, is parenting at its best.

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