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.

A Quick Look at Everyday Disempowerment of Deaf People

A page from NADmag's Spring 2016 issue showing my articleThis article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of NADmag; download a PDF version of the article.

Video description Trudy, a white woman with shoulder-length brown hair, is wearing a navy blue shirt with a red, white, light blue, tan, and navy blue striped scarf. She is seated in the corner with brown bookshelves on her right and a sea blue wall on her left.

Image description: The article as it appeared in NADmag is shown on a yellow page with the headline in yellow text, and the body text in black. Nancy Rourke’s painting of DEAF DISEMPOWERMENT is shown, in her trademark red, yellow, blue, white, and black colors; a woman resembling Trudy is shown in black with a huge hole in her chest.

The Deaf community certainly has come a long way over the decades, even if the pendulum constantly swings from one side to the other in terms of education, discrimination, access, and equality. It is so important that we all are aware of the rights we hold as humans who are Deaf. That itself is a given; nobody would argue otherwise with us. Yet, we allow ourselves to put up with everyday disempowerment, especially for small, seemingly innocent situations. In order to reduce this, we need to first understand what disempowerment is.

Everyday Acts of Disempowerment
The word disempowerment has quite a simple definition for such a powerful concept: to take away power. When we think of disempowerment, we usually think of things like not being provided interpreting services, watching films or TV without captions, being told not to sign, having our lives decided or even dictated by people with no knowledge of ASL or Deaf culture, or seeing hearing actors in roles portraying Deaf people. Yet there are smaller, everyday acts that hold just as much capacity, if not more, to disempower us.

How many times have you logged onto Facebook or Twitter only to find that your (hearing) friends, parents, relatives or even spouses have posted videos that aren’t captioned? Then when you ask them for a transcript, they say, “Oh, darn, I never thought about that,” yet they do it time after time. Another example is when hearing parents speak about their deaf children in front of the children, yet the children don’t realize the conversation is about them.

Countless examples of everyday disempowerment happen in the workplace, of course. Meetings that aren’t interpreted, water cooler conversations where the Deaf person can’t participate, the annoyance factor (when a boss rolls his eyes at a request for an interpreter), being underestimated because you’re Deaf, the office dialogue that takes place over cubicle walls as you’re sitting at your station working; the list goes on and on. Sure, there are accommodations, but it’s just not the same as direct communication access.

How about if you’re writing down something at a fast-food restaurant or even a store—perhaps your order or a question—and the employee, as you’re writing, starts working with another customer? This tells not just you, but also other people, that you’re not worth the wait. Maybe you’re talking with someone who knows that signing and speaking at the same time is combining two separate languages, making it difficult for you to easily access this information. Yet you know if you ask that person to turn off his/her voice or remove his/her speech privilege, that person might be offended. So you end up simply saying nothing as you struggle.

These are minor acts of disempowerment that we’ve become so accustomed to, and we usually don’t do much about them because it’s just not worth the battle. The cycle then continues, because by just accepting these incidents, we are in essence telling the other people that they can continue doing this, even though it’s really not okay.

Disempowerment Through ASL
Teaching ASL is another example of everyday disempowerment that many have come to accept as the status quo. There are thousands of ASL teachers in the nation. How many are deaf? No real statistics exist on this yet. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of certified Baby Sign Language instructors. How many are deaf? A very small percentage. Just go to the bookstore and take a look at all the baby signs books, or look up local baby sign language classes; the majority is taught by hearing people who aren’t necessarily fluent in ASL.

Are all the Deaf Studies and ASL programs in the nation run by Deaf people? No. How about agencies serving Deaf people, state commissions for Deaf people, and organizations focusing on things like baby signs? Are there more Deaf administrators than hearing in these positions? Probably not. How many deaf-run interpreting agencies can you name off the top of your head? What’s wrong with this picture?

A common response to why a deaf person isn’t at the helm of a program or agency working with deaf and hard of hearing people is, “We advertised the position and couldn’t find anyone qualified.” That certainly could be the case. Still, such situations have ripple effects: deaf people aren’t hired, and those outside of the deaf community, in turn, continue to have beliefs and perceptions shaped by hearing people. These hearing people then believe they can educate others about us, rather than bringing in appropriate Deaf community representatives.

If no qualified deaf person applies for a position, there needs to be a short-term and long-term remedy. One possible solution is to keep the position open for as long as possible until someone who is qualified and deaf is hired. Another potential solution is to have an interim director in place, hire someone who is definitely capable of doing the job, and train that person until she or he is ready to take the helm. Is that costly and cumbersome? Perhaps. Cost-beneficial and cost-effective in the long run? Absolutely.

Interpreters: An Imbalance
Interpreters have always been, and likely will always be, a great source of disempowerment. One challenge for many Deaf consumers is at medical appointments, when interpreters go into the hallway whenever the nurse or doctor leaves, instead of staying in the room with the Deaf patient. From an interpreter’s perspective, this is necessary given the many opportunities for ethical dilemmas. For instance, if the Deaf patient says something to the interpreter that is medically relevant, but doesn’t share this information with the doctor, is the interpreter bound to tell the doctor? Yet, is it really fair to keep the patient isolated in a room where there’s no visual access to all the sounds and conversations that a hearing patient could overhear? Many Deaf people say no.

Anita Buel, a Deaf community health worker (DCHW) in Minnesota, has an ongoing frustration. CHWs are certified, trained advocates who accompany patients in their own communities (in this case, the Deaf community) and provide advocacy, information, and clarification for patients who may feel overwhelmed by medical jargon, procedures, and the overall health system. DCHWs, however, are not certified deaf interpreters (CDI); they have as much of a need for interpreters as the Deaf patients. Buel says she gets frustrated when she knows interpreters are in the hallway waiting, and then they come into the room already deep in conversation with the doctor or nurse. This, to her, shows that if the patient already is at a disadvantage, because oftentimes interpreters build relationships with medical professionals and therefore aren’t always perceived as neutral parties. Interpreters, by doing this, also have a rapport established with the medical staff that patients often struggle to establish because of the three-way communication.

An Imbalance in Knowledge
Many people, both deaf and hearing, have appropriately lauded the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) for increasing its standards and professionalism among interpreters within the past few years. Yet there is one act of disempowerment throughout this progress that has been deeply, and easily, overlooked: the knowledge imbalance, which creates a major disadvantage for Deaf people.

The RID requires its interpreters to have bachelor’s degrees, among other criteria; this is a fantastic requirement because it ensures that interpreters are educated. Interpreters, to receive certification, must also have the necessary (even if minimal) training in all the aspects involved with interpreters. Yet, this creates a major imbalance in knowledge, and power. Think about it: do Deaf people have the same access to education as interpreters? No. Are Deaf individuals generally trained to work with interpreters, on advocating for interpreter quality, and on how the interpreting process ideally works? No, absolutely not. Deaf people have had to constantly educate each other on a grassroots level on how to deal with interpreting dilemmas.

Is there any training provided to Deaf people in elementary school through adulthood on how to work with interpreters in various settings, or on self-advocacy? Unfortunately, the answer is no once again. There is a deaf self-advocacy training curriculum available through the National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers, but even this curriculum is limited in its contents and availability. On the flip side, sometimes Deaf people aren’t fully educated on the interpreter’s role. Those individuals might mistakenly claim interpreters are oppressive or not doing their jobs, when in reality they are doing exactly what their jobs require.

Keep in mind that most interpreters receive years of formal, professional training in everything from ASL to ethics to business practices. Interpreters are also tested on their knowledge and skills, and then maybe certified. Interpreters are given the knowledge that Deaf people so greatly need and deserve. When Deaf people do not receive this same knowledge, this has deep-seated repercussions.

Whether we like to admit it or not, interpreters have an incredible amount of jurisdiction over our access to people, interviews, medical appointments, education, phone calls, and pretty much everything else. This isn’t necessarily bad, as long as they use this power appropriately and without malice. But this so-called jurisdiction can create even further potential for conflict and division. On top of that, this power imbalance can become magnified in small towns where interpreters might, by default, rule the roost because everyone knows everyone. This has happened time after time, where Deaf people lose jobs, are rejected for jobs, are perceived as unintelligent, and so much more all because they had conflicts with interpreters.

Understand, Analyze, and Act
The NAD has fought for equality among Deaf people for more than a century, and has produced some of the most remarkable leaders in American history. Yet each and every leader within the NAD, both at the state and national level, is guaranteed to have at least three stories of disempowerment running the gamut of minor to major incidents.

In addition to educating ourselves, we need to learn how to come together to prevent or reduce disempowerment in any form or shape. It’s crucial that we recognize that disempowerment doesn’t always happen on purpose; it’s often by accident. Even so, that doesn’t mean it’s okay. As renowned vlogger and blogger Franchesca “Chescaleigh” Ramsey says, “It’s not about intent. It’s about impact.”

What can we do, as Deaf people, to help lessen disempowerment ranging from simple acts to in- depth, intentional acts? First, we must understand what disempowerment is, how it affects us, and why it affects us. Even the seemingly small acts of disempowerment that we’ve become so accustomed, almost immune to, have major impact on our everyday lives as Deaf people. It is crucial that we, as Deaf people, become fully educated on acts of disempowerment, the interpreting process, on our roles, on our legal rights, and on how to deal with conflict or oppression. This kind of education should start at the earliest stages of our lives as Deaf people, so that we go throughout life knowing what we’re supposed to do. This would help lessen so much of the disempowerment that takes place. It would also help reduce the ingrained frustration that often comes from encountering such disempowerment, because we would have the tools to take the next steps. We must also be careful to remember that if a deaf person expresses frustration, it doesn’t necessarily mean she or he is angry, divisive or separatist. Rather, take a look at the situation, and figure out how all parties have contributed to the situation.

By understanding the gravity of each situation, small or large, we can then come to analyze the steps leading up to that situation and what we can do next. By understanding all the parties involved and their perceptions, and by figuring out what resources we have, we can then determine steps of action. Finally, we can then act on the disempowerment through appropriate steps. We must always strive for access to the same education as our hearing allies (interpreters, parents, friends, and other supporters). By working to minimize disempowerment, we can then have access to equality, to communication, and most importantly, to being human.

The original disempowerment article can be found here.

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

#iamdeaf

12916137_10154204868153054_2034469502942179823_oIn response to the recent AGB letter controversy, Robin Horwitz has created an #iamdeaf page on Facebook, and I was among the people he asked to make a clip to include in the first #iamdeaf video.

Take a look at the video (also available on YouTube), along with so many others, here.

 

 

Giving Credit Where It Wasn’t Due

Video description: Trudy, a white woman with shoulder-length brown hair, is wearing a deep royal blue sweater. She is seated in the corner with brown bookshelves on her right and a sea blue wall on her left.

I was the keynote speaker at a world languages ceremony at a public high school last year, and I thought this would be a fantastic opportunity to highlight American Sign Language (ASL) as a bona fide language along with its history of being oppressed. I sent my speech in advance to the interpreters, and arrived early to ensure that I could establish a rapport with them, since they would be controlling my voice and how I would be perceived by hundreds of hearing parents and students in attendance—many of who had never seen or met a deaf person before. I had shared my reservations about the interpreters’ ability to voice for me with the sign language coordinator, but I wanted to believe they would do just fine.

As I sat through the first part of the ceremony, I was reminded of my years as a mainstreamed student: rather than integrating me into the activities, they were providing me with minimal access — and therefore I was isolated just as I had been in school. One of the interpreters sat at the very far left of the stage, even though I was seated near center right in the front row in a reserved seat. It was very difficult to see her in the dimmed lighting. I discreetly asked her to move closer to me, but she couldn’t understand me. After repeating myself twice, she responded that she wouldn’t move because she was fine where she was. I decided to let it go, since I was more focused on my presentation.

Once I got onstage, I began to sign, only to realize that the interpreter was immediately faltering. The other interpreter wasn’t involved at all, not even in a supporting role. Fortunately, the hearing (and fluent) ASL teacher Ms. Doe, who had invited me to the ceremony, was standing next to the interpreter. I quickly asked her to take over the voicing, so she did, and the speech went well in spite of this initial stumble.

At the end of the ceremony, the director of the ESL, World Languages, Bilingual Education and Performing Arts department came onstage to give closing remarks. As the interpreter signed, I did a double take, but decided to hold any reaction until I could confirm what had actually been said. I emailed that director later on to request a copy of her comments. As I read the copy a few weeks later, I realized with a sick feeling that I hadn’t misunderstood, nor had the interpreter misinterpreted. Below is a direct copy-and-paste from the director’s remarks, which she read from onstage:

Before I start, one thing I need to comment on is the power of Ms. Suggs’ presentation. Aside from teaching us so much about the history of ASL, she and Mrs. Doe performed a very beneficial role reversal for us tonight. So often, as speakers of the dominant language of our culture, we take for granted that we are going to understand everything that is told to us. The broadcast news is geared to us, with the little sign language translation box is in the corner —sometimes. Tonight, most of us were totally dependent on Mrs. Doe for comprehension. That brings about many emotions, maybe even negative emotions. Think about how you felt during that presentation, totally dependent on a translator. Were you bored? Frustrated? Engaged in the challenge of trying to decipher it? What about if Mrs. Doe had not been there to help us? Please remember what you felt tonight when you encounter speakers of other languages, in particular the over 800 students who are currently considered English Language Learners in our [town name deleted] Public Schools family. What you experienced tonight is what they experience every day. I would also like to recognize Mrs. Doe’s extraordinary talents. Simultaneous interpretation is one of the most demanding language tasks, and her interpretation was first-rate.

Her comments spotlighted Ms. Doe and the “helplessness” instead of focusing on the message I shared — which was the incredible history behind signed languages, and their equality to spoken language. Ms. Doe was made the hero of my presentation, instead of focusing on signed languages. To add insult to injury, the two interpreters’ failure to work together or adequately prepare for the presentation was converted into a “challenge of trying to decipher” what I was signing, rather than outright incompetency. And let’s not even talk about the “little sign language translation box in the corner” comment.

To be fair, the way the challenges were framed — “. . .bored? Frustrated” and “negative emotions” — were probably intended to remind people about the importance of respect. Yet these very words seemed to imply that signed language was “boring,” as if I didn’t communicate myself clearly and was difficult to “decipher.” If the interpreters had done their job properly, nobody would be bored, frustrated or negatively responding. Finally, “What if Mrs. Doe had not been there to help us?” is a perfect example of deficit thinking.

Deaf people have always found a way to communicate, and it’s our words that interpreters are voicing, even if haphazardly at times. There is no helplessness involved; there is no dependence involved. Unfortunately, this perception of helplessness remains, even among people who are fully educated on how ASL is a separate language and in no way correlates with helplessness.

How do we address this? I’m not quite sure, because it seems like everything we’ve tried in the past few centuries hasn’t worked. I do know that we must educate people about giving interpreters, or in this case, someone who happened to sign fluently, so much credit. We also must have them start shifting the focus onto the message, rather than the modality or translation process. If only the director had listened to what I said in my presentation: “All this stems from the mistaken notion that one language is superior to another . . . .and one way to combat this is as you continue to study languages, embrace their peoples, history, and cultures, and celebrate all that the language stands for.”

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

Deaf Women Supporting Deaf Women

This article originally appeared in Get a Z Life Magazine

deafwomenWhen you put a group of women together to work, what do you get? Ask anyone this question, and you’re likely to get stereotypical responses like, “Oooh, catfight!” or “A lot of drama and backstabbing.” Is this really accurate, especially in the Deaf community? Many don’t think so.

Stereotypes

Why do such negative stereotypes persist? “I think it’s because of the already-oppressive world that women live in,” says Deaf Women United (DWU) Chair Melissa Yingst Huber of Phoenix. “For a long time, women have faced oppression, and just recently more and more women are emerging as leaders. Women have had to work harder, and in a sense, ‘fight’ to earn respect as leaders, so that is already a negative connotation in us as women, that we have to fight hard to earn the respect we deserve as leaders. It may be hard for some women to celebrate other women leaders because they are already fighting for a place for themselves in society. So it may be their first instinct to view other women leaders as competition rather than recognizing them as equally accomplished female counterparts in the world.”

 Socorro Moore of Seattle, who serves on the Council de Manos board along with the DWU board, agrees. “To collaborate and work together can be challenging because we’re dealing with people different from ourselves, and our self-interests may conflict. Women might also have fears coming from a place of unawareness, [fears of] being judged and miscommunication, and being patronized simply because they are women.”

Another factor of negative stereotypes is the expectation of women to do it all. Huber says, “Many women who have children may be expected or feel that they need to put in more time with their children, and that takes away the free time that they may have to continue with leadership commitments, activities, and so on, especially if they are working women.”
“There’s so much domestic violence going on, a lot of women have self-esteem issues where they may need support from other women without judgment,” adds Sharon White, an active National Black Deaf Advocate participant from Frankfort, Ky. “We also have to remember different backgrounds, cultures and religions. Today, things are a lot different for women in employment, especially for single moms—the list goes on. It’s sometimes frustrating and hard to get everyone together. There are many bright women out there but they may be not available to be part of the advocacy network because they have small children, and they don’t have the time to give to support groups.”

Huber, however, sees an upside to this high expectation. “The idea that many women take on many different roles can enable them to be great multitaskers, juggle different commitments, and develop skills to make significant contributions to the community.”

Lack of Support and Role Models

Another challenge is the lack of support and role models, Huber says. “In the Deaf world, where the crab theory is already imminent, that’s a double negative for Deaf women. Deaf people are already trying to make their place in a hearing-dominated world, so it makes it doubly harder for Deaf women leaders to emerge and celebrate each other.”

“I think healthy models are lacking because many of us did not have other women to look up to while growing up,” Marilyn Jean Smith of Seattle says. Smith founded the acclaimed Abused Deaf Women Advocacy Services (ADWAS) organization and has served on numerous boards, including DWU and the National Association of the Deaf. She continues, “I personally had to unlearn a lot of things, move away from the hierarchal model and go with a consensus model, which I think respects everyone’s thoughts (or tries to). Our models have been traditional male ones, which is, for the most part, about power and control.”

Huber echoes this perspective. “It has often been said that women are too emotional and sensitive. However, I feel that very element makes women great leaders. Being emotionally in tune enables women to connect with others, be more in tune with others’ emotions, understand each other more, gauge interest and reactions from other people.”

She points out that the availability of Deaf women as role models in her upbringing helped her become the confident, happy woman she is today. “I’ve always loved being a Deaf woman. My pride of being a strong Deaf woman probably comes from the fact that I had a Deaf mother who was a strong woman, never afraid to share her thoughts, and that was instilled in me at a very young age. I also had wonderful Deaf female role models growing up. That sense of pride only got stronger as I grew older.”

The Deaf community is close-knit in nature, so when the crab theory is in full force, that can become difficult to address, Smith says. “I think we go quiet most of the time when we see someone sabotaging the efforts of another or don’t confront women who tell stories about others that may not be true. Our community is certainly small and in an effort to get along with everyone, however superficial it is, this can mean we sometimes keep quiet to not rock the boat.”

Sofia Seitchik, of Global Deaf Women, says, “This pulling-down of each other takes place because of people’s mindsets and their upbringings. Many don’t realize what their beliefs are as Deaf people, which are often developed from oppression.” She continues, “They need to reexamine themselves and ask themselves questions like, ‘Is there anything I can do to shift my mindset and beliefs as a Deaf woman, to believe that we are intelligent and as capable as any other person?’ This will help them open their hearts and this can be a very powerful self-mirror. Only then can they really support other women, such as Deaf business owners.”

Deaf Business Owners

Jasmine Garcia-Freeland, who owns All That Jazz and lives in Bozeman, Mont., sees this pulling-down often. “As a second-year business owner who is a Deaf woman, I think a lot of the negativity is based on mentality.” She cites a pattern among many Deaf women who refuse to support certain Deaf businesswomen simply because of personal conflicts, rather than looking at the bigger picture of the Deaf ecosystem. “To me, it doesn’t matter if I like that person or not. It’s important that we always support each other, encourage each other, and strive for a stronger Deaf business community so that our reach can extend to the hearing community, too.”

Seitchik is a successful business and life coach working with Deaf women entrepreneurs. “In the past few years we’ve seen some of the fastest-growing numbers of Deaf-owned and woman-owned businesses, but not many of them survive. This creates unique stressors, because so many eyes are on the owners, waiting to see if they fail. There exists a norm among the Deaf community that they will wait to see if a business makes it or not before they support.” As a result, Seitchik says, deaf businesswomen have to invest time and energy in educating the community on their businesses, rather than focusing on the businesses themselves.

Seitchik also receives the same questions repeatedly in her coaching: “I get asked over and over again, ‘Will I be successful in my business? Will Deaf people support me? Do you think I can do it?’ I see so much fear in their eyes, and this pains me because this is the mindset that has been in place for many years. Most deaf people prefer to invest in hearing businesses because they mistakenly believe that hearing people know more. This is even more true for deaf women business owners, and it’s tiring and demoralizing.”

Strategies for Support

Moore believes the solution to removal of negativity can be found in ourselves. “We each have to get out of our way to help others reach their goals. This goes beyond concern for yourself and your own advancement. Don’t panic when others are happy and improving—envy, jealousy, and bitterness are a waste of time, and it’s not a great place to feel insecurity.”

Smith agrees wholeheartedly. “I have my limits with negative people. There is only so much I can do and then I need to walk away or minimize our encounters. One thing I know for sure: always respond in a positive way to negativity. It is draining work but it has to happen or you risk getting sucked in.” She suggests writing about your experiences, and having dialogue by being vulnerable and being open. She often posts her thoughts on social media, saying, “I’m amazed at how many people validate some things I post on Facebook with responses like, ‘Whew, I’m not alone. I thought I was the only one.’ We need to praise other women not just to their faces but also to others. Cherish their gifts, as you want them to cherish yours. Be a role model.”

White says, “Trying to work together and trying to find a common ground is always important. It’s best to take a negative situation and try to see the positive of it and work with that.” She adds, “We need to start offering our experiences in exchange for helping out with peer groups for women to help become more independent as well as boosting their self-esteem.” Sharing experiences to bond with others is another way women can support each other, she believes. “Provide support for them. Let them know there are resources out there. Be honest and open-minded, and provide clear communication so that things can be understood rather than misunderstood. Basically, treat deaf women the way you wish to be treated as a human being, not because we are deaf.”

Celebrating each person’s accomplishments is another step, Huber says. “Each woman has a unique story and has so much to contribute, and it’s so important to celebrate and recognize what each woman can contribute, whether big or small. When women are recognized and celebrated, this inspires other women, creating a ripple effect.”

Although there are many who continue to believe in traditional roles and expectations for women, Huber has hope. “The optimist in me has already seen so much positive change in today’s society where people are becoming more accepting and aware of everyone’s differences, respecting everyone’s backgrounds. There are only more good things to come, which will include more acceptance, celebration, and respect for women. Not only the concept of womanhood, but also the full picture of each woman, all the different layers in each woman, and the different intersectionalities of each.”

Garcia-Freeland adds, “It’s so important to socialize with women from all walks of life, because this is the reality of the world. It’s diverse, and I want to work well with others. I can accomplish this because I value each person’s experiences and stories, regardless of whether we have mutual friends or not.”

“I am aware that we Deaf women may have to work harder and prove ourselves, but that’s okay with me, because I know that we Deaf women are fully capable of accomplishing many wonderful things. I would not change a thing, especially with the plethora of Deaf female organizations out there and all the opportunities for Deaf women out there,” Huber says. “There’s always magic when you put together a group of women, because they’re able to influence each other and inspire each other in positive ways.”

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

sComm: An Update

Read my original article and open letter (available in ASL and English) before reading the below.

Warning: This article includes graphic language.

In March, I wrote an article objecting to sComm’s practice of promoting the UbiDuo as a replacement for interpreters. I then wrote an open letter urging sComm to retract its statements and apologize to interpreters and the community. Several messages I sent to sComm went unanswered. Before continuing, it may help to know a bit about sComm.

About sComm
sComm is located in Raytown, Mo., just outside of Kansas City. sComm promotes itself as being deaf-owned, but in reality, it’s partially owned by Jason Curry, who is deaf. His parents, David and Emma Curry, both hearing, are the other owners. David, credited with devising the UbiDuo concept, is a well-known real estate mogul in Sedalia, Mo.; he does not sign. Emma was an educational interpreter (using Signed Exact English) at one time, but is now the vice president at sComm and is typically involved with day-to-day matters.

The start of sComm (the name stands for simultaneous communication) was discussed in an article in The ExaminersComm “applied for a National Institutes of Health grant. It took five years for the funding to come through. In 2005 the company received a $1.5 million grant.” Curry, now 46, was then working for the federal General Services Administration, and resigned to take the company forward in 2008.

Response to My Writings
After my article and open letter were released, the response was overwhelming. Message after message shared people’s heart-wrenching stories from of being forced or pushed to use the UbiDuo instead of having interpreters brought onsite, especially in hospital and government settings. Deaf Hearing Network also aired a segment featuring a woman who shared her negative experiences with the UbiDuo.

[Read more…]

Speech given at a high school in 2015

The following is a speech I gave at a public high school’s world languages ceremony in 2015. Read the article I wrote about this experience.

Language, as we know firsthand, is at the very heart of every civilization, and has been ever since the beginning of humankind. Whether it be gestures or full-blown language, language has endured changes, evolution, abuse and even death, or linguicide — and nowhere is that more evident than in signed languages.

Allow me to back up a bit and give you a bit of background. I am second-generation Deaf, which means my parents are also deaf. My husband is third-generation, so that means our four deaf children are fourth generations — and we have over 50 deaf relatives on both sides of the family in terms of cousins, uncles and aunts, grandparents and lots of other relatives I probably don’t want to meet. That translates to a long history of using sign language in our family, dating back to the early 1900s. In essence, we’ve had sign language for over a hundred years. As Deaf people, we recognize the immense value of language, and being able to connect with each other through words, spoken or signed.

Today, American Sign Language, ASL, like many other languages, is recognized on so many levels. It’s one of the fastest-growing languages in the U.S., and is believed to be the third most used language in the U.S. Sounds good, right?

Well, let me give you a bit of history. Although sign language has been around since primitive times, and the earliest recorded drawing of the fingerspelled alphabet dates back to the 1500s, it wasn’t until the 1960s that Dr. William Stokoe, a hearing man who wasn’t very fluent in sign language, did research that proved ASL was a bona fide language, separate from English.

I remember growing up telling people, and even writing in my research papers for school, that ASL was broken English, that it was abbreviated English. I can’t believe I actually said that, because this was during the 1980s and early 1990s. ASL research already existed. Why didn’t anyone tell me otherwise? Why was I never taught that ASL had its own rich vocabulary, syntax and other properties?

I’ll tell you why. It’s because for centuries, sign language has been looked upon as a language for animals, as primitive, as unsavory, and any other host of adjectives. This primarily has to do with the notion that spoken language is superior. This is only natural; anything different from us is considered strange, funny, fascinating, or even beautiful. We all experience xenophobia to different degrees. That’s why learning new languages is so important, so that we can learn about other cultures, other peoples, and each other.

The problem is that signed language is often not considered another language. Rather, people mistakenly believe it’s a basic form of gesturing, and a direct representation of English on the hands. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.

As students of language yourself, you know how challenging grammar in other languages can be. This is equally true for sign language, whether it’s American Sign Language or French Sign Language or any other signed language. As an aside, sign language isn’t universal, if you were wondering.

So, back to why nobody told me ASL was a stand-alone, distinct language from English. . . there is a long history behind this, and it involves Alexander Graham Bell. Yeah, that one. The same guy who invented our telephone, or rather, he was the first to claim the patent. It’s now known that he wasn’t actually the first inventor, but he got the patent first.

Bell was the son of a deaf mother, and is said to have been very fluent in sign language. He later married a deaf woman, who did not sign. Nobody really knows why, but Bell became very adamant that sign language was not the way go. He became a steadfast proponent of banishing sign language from all education. He also believed that deaf people should not marry, and actually was a huge supporter of eugenics, the social movement claiming to improve the genetic features of human populations through selective breeding and sterilization in order to create a superior society. He even served as president of the National Eugenics Society.

Many people find that astonishing, and I do, too. How could someone who signed fluently, had deaf relatives and was such a brilliant man have such warped perspectives? Even if times were different back then, it’s still shocking.

Bell had a pivotal role in something that has had major ripple effects to this day. He was one of 164 delegates to the 1880 International Congress on Education of the Deaf, which was held in Milan, Italy. At this conference, it was voted that sign language would be banned from education in favor of teaching deaf children to speak. Out of the 164 delegates, guess how many were deaf? Only one.

So, as a result of this ban, Deaf teachers and other deaf professionals lost their jobs if they could not speak. Deaf children were raised without access to sign language, often being punished if they even as much moved their fingers, and this lack of access caused great delays in language development, in later-life opportunities and much more. The effects are being felt even today, 135 years later — all because of the notion that spoken language is superior to signed language.

Around the country, and in many other countries, deaf schools — which are not the stereotypical institutions you think of where you “abandon” people with disabilities or mental illnesses; they’re actually beautiful, flourishing places where culture, language and tradition are preserved from generation to generation — are closing down for many reasons, but especially because of the perceived cost. More and more school districts are favoring mainstreaming because they think it saves money, when in reality, it causes a lot more harm for so many children in terms of language access. I’m not saying mainstreaming is bad; it’s not always bad. It worked for me, but I wish I knew back then what I know today.

There is also a massive spoken language — in other words, no signs — movement underway around the nation. More and more doctors are urging parents to shun sign language and to focus on spoken language. Spoken language does work for some, but not for all. What happens is that in 20 years, many of these deaf babies raised without sign language, come to the deaf community with anger, frustration and struggles because they had limited language access. This has happened time after time, and despite the most massive efforts, signed language has persisted.

With my four children — who are ages 7, 6, almost 5 and 3.5 — I saw firsthand just how naturally their language developed. They began babbling in sign language at maybe three months, and then began making words when they were six months old. It didn’t change with each child; each child hit the same language milestones in their first year of life. I have many examples that support how bilingualism is really beneficial.

When my oldest was 17 months old, she told me about a dream she had about a wolf inside a pumpkin. I was astounded, because that was from a children’s book we had read a few days before. For her to be able to describe such an abstract concept — dreams — and be so detailed in what it was about was just mind-blowing. Yet, because she was not yet fluent in English at that age, she would have been incorrectly perceived as language-delayed. Today, she’s seven and reading and writing at two grades above level. My other children are the same; all are above grade level for language in both ASL and English. This is no surprise for those who are familiar with bilingualism with any two languages; bilingualism has consistently shown to help young children acquire languages and get ahead in many areas.

With the proliferation of sign language classes and programs around the country, it’s sadly ironic that more and more deaf people — specifically children — are being denied access to sign language, which is their natural language. All this stems from the mistaken notion that one language is superior to another. Signed languages are not the only victims of this, though. This is also happening with many other languages in the United States, all because of the belief that English should be the only language.

And this, my friends, is exactly why language access is so crucial for any child, deaf or hearing. Unfortunately, because being deaf is still looked upon as a disability instead of a linguistic minority or cultural minority, millions of children around the world are being denied sign language. We must cease the belief that any one language is superior to another, like English being superior to Spanish.

So, what does this have to do with you? Why should you care? The answer is simple. You are given the privilege of choosing to study one language, any language and making yourself bilingual or even multilingual. And you can do this using your natural language. This same privilege needs to be given to deaf children, just like I was given that privilege. There are many ways you can do this as a world language student.

Say you’re learning Italian or French, and you go to Italy or France and run into a deaf child. What would you do? Or maybe you have a deaf child yourself someday. How would you respond? May I suggest that as you study your language of choice, you also learn the sign language of that country? Learn about sign language, learn about the glorious culture of Deaf people not only in America, but in other countries as well, and help promote the fact that signed language is as important as your language of choice. By ensuring that signed language persists despite blatant modern-day efforts to abolish it and misconceptions, you are helping bring language access to every deaf person out there. Linguicide is not acceptable for any language, and one way to combat this is as you continue to study languages, embrace their peoples, histories and cultures, and celebrate all that the language stands for.

Thank you for allowing me to share the importance of preserving any and all languages without oppression or notions of superiority. Congratulations on this wonderful journey you have embarked on into world language learning.

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

Open letter to Jason Curry, sComm CEO

(To learn more about this open letter, go here.)

March 30, 2015

Mr. Curry:

Thank you for the video you released on Friday, March 27, clarifying sComm’s position on having the UbiDuo replace interpreters specifically in child abuse cases.

My goal is to ensure that accurate information is shared with everyone, deaf or hearing, and that nobody has any communication options forced upon him or her. I would like to invite sComm to share in this goal.

However, many of the comments on the sComm Facebook page have been deleted, including several I posted, such as this one:IMG_6636 2

I would like to understand why they were deleted. A tough part of any business is dealing with customer feedback, positive or negative. Deleting messages can be counterproductive, and implies that sComm does not welcome feedback from the very community it serves.

Additionally, there seems to be quite a history of sComm’s position on “replacing” interpreters with the UbiDuo and the continued implication that deaf and hard of hearing people cannot function independently; this dates back to at least January 2012, as shown in this YouTube video at around the three-minute mark where you are shown typing “deaf and hard of hearing people have to go everywhere with an interpreter” to a reporter.

Screen Shot 2015-03-30 at 10.14.32 AM

I also have numerous other screenshots, submitted by people, showing similar messages made by sComm representatives and/or you.

While I won’t repeat the long list of issues and suggestions mentioned on my Facebook page or website, I would like to invite you to release an official statement stating sComm’s position on interpreters as a valuable communication tool (or even necessity). I would also like to invite you to share sComm’s updated marketing strategy and how the UbiDuo will be illustrated as one of many options, rather than the only option, available to people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Please note I am not including deafblind people here, as many have told me that the UbiDuo is inaccessible to them. I also encourage sComm to add a statement to its website clearly stating that the UbiDuo should never be considered a replacement for those who prefer to work with interpreters.

Furthermore, I would like to know if sComm intends to take down the Communiphobia video and all other videos and posts that demean American Sign Language and interpreters indirectly or directly. Finally, I welcome an apology from sComm, and you personally, to the deaf and interpreting communities for the insurmountable harm and countless misconceptions that sComm has created, and sComm’s commitment to remedying this.

From a deaf business owner to another, I implore you to please remember that whether we like it or not, any message you share with your clients will have an indirect, and direct, effect on each and every member of the deaf community, including my four children and me. People like you and me are shaping their futures, and it’s crucial that we do this correctly and respectfully.

I look forward to positive changes.

Sincerely,

Trudy Suggs

Doing More Harm than Good

(See the bottom of this page for a link to sComm’s response to this and my follow-up response in both ASL and English. I have also posted updates at the end of this page.)

A friend texted and told me to look at the sComm Facebook page; sComm is the company that markets the UbiDuo device. Saying it enables “the Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and Hearing [sic] to Communicate without Barriers,” it touts the UbiDuo as “the world’s foremost communication solution for people who are deaf, hard of hearing or hearing.” It also states almost proudly, it seems, that there “is no need for an interpreter with the UbiDuo.”

Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 1.58.55 PM

When the UbiDuo, produced by sComm, first came out, I was a bit skeptical because the device didn’t seem like anything special; it was like a makeshift set-up of two TTYs connected to each other. Even though some people I knew worked for sComm, I still wasn’t convinced of its value.

Based in Raytown, Mo., the company was founded by Jason Curry, who is deaf, and his hearing father David. The sComm website says, “The UbiDuo was born out of pure frustration.” The story is that the father and son duo “sat down for breakfast one morning and struggled to carry on an in-depth business conversation, free of misinterpretation and confusion.” David sketched his vision of a product, and, “Just like that, one family’s efforts to achieve meaningful and treasured personal connections through communication brought the same life-changing triumph to millions of other deaf and hard of hearing individuals across the world.”

People have the option of getting the UbiDuo 2 Wireless for $1,995 or the UbiDuo Wired for $2,195. Oh, and if you want enhanced security, that’s another $150, and then the carrying bag for the UbiDuo is yet another $50. The sComm website lists along its clients Walmart, Wells Fargo, the White House, Coca-Cola, the Canadian Hearing Society, Goodwill, Pride Toronto, Wegman’s, the U.S. Postal Service, NASA, several universities, and even the U.S. Army and Pentagon.

Within the past few years, sComm has begun aggressively marketing the UbiDuo as a way to replace interpreters rather than as a communication tool. When I lived in Minnesota, a local advocate who worked for sComm allegedly convinced the local hospital — which had been super in providing immediate access to interpreters — to use the UbiDuo for emergency room communications instead of interpreters. Knowing this advocate’s belief system, I didn’t buy that he would actually push for this.

When my husband had to go to the emergency room, we found the rumor was true. My husband texted me, confused, saying that the nurse told him no interpreters were available because it was the weekend. I knew this was not accurate information, and since I had worked closely with the hospital for years in ensuring top-notch interpreter provision, I immediately told him to take photographs or get a copy of the nurse’s notes. The nurse also said the UbiDuo was now the standard for emergency room visits instead of interpreters. When I notified my contacts at the hospital, they apologized and said they would immediately remedy this mistake by communicating with the ER staff.

So after my friend’s text, I looked at the sComm Facebook page and couldn’t believe my eyes. In a post that has since been removed, sComm shared the article regarding Tennessee’s proposed law to use volunteer interpreters, and said: “What are your thoughts on volunteer interpreters dealing with child abuse cases? How is this a good thing? It’s simply not, not one bit.” I thought, “All right, that’s a great start.” But then the next paragraph floored me.

sComm wrote, “For these kind of situations as well, investigators would benefit greatly from a UbiDuo 2 to communicate easily and securely with the deaf and hard of hearing.”

I shared that post on my Facebook page, and added, “Uh, no! A UbiDuo 2 does NOT help if one is physically injured, traumatized, or scared. It also does not help if one is too upset to think straight in English, or is not fluent in English. I know when I’m really upset, I don’t want to have to type my thoughts out, even if temporarily. There have been times where I was too shaky to even hold a pen, much less type.”

I went back to the sComm page and asked, “Are you seriously proposing the UbiDuo 2 as a replacement (even if temporarily) for an interpreter based on this proposed law?” The response was a brief, “Yes, we are.”IMG_6595

Lest anyone think otherwise, this was not the first time sComm had made such outrageous comments. In a Feb. 6 post, sComm posted this:

“What would you do if you were in a life-threatening situation and unable to communicate? Wait hours for an interpreter? That’s not the solution and it’s a very dangerous solution.

The UbiDuo solves that problem. Communicate freely without barriers with anyone you’d like to, without an interpreter.”

Screen Shot 2015-03-27 at 8.36.16 AM

Again, no. In order to use the UbiDuo, one needs to be fluent in English, and of a sound mind and not in any emotional distress. In cases of abuse, especially with children, this is usually not the case. When I saw the response, “Yes, we are,” I immediately thought of my four deaf children who are aged 7 to 3. Although the older two are developing fluency in English, they’re not quite there—and even if they were, I would not want them to have to type on a machine, especially if they’re injured or traumatized. They should, instead, be given a qualified, certified interpreter (and even a Certified Deaf Interpreter), so that they have full access to everything around them and have full access to expressing themselves in their native language.

Unfortunately, sComm has a history of pushing for the UbiDuo to replace interpreters. Just look at the blurb on the American Bar Association’s website:

The UbiDuo enables deaf/hard of hearing people to communicate with hearing people without any face to face barriers. The UbiDuo is a two-screen, two-keyboard electronic communication device. It is completely portable, wireless, operates in real-time, and is completely stand alone.  This device was tested in the 13th Circuit and was very successful.  OSCA then purchased 38 units through the Basic, Data and Training Grants for distribution statewide.  Having this equipment significantly reduces the need for hiring deaf interpreters.  These devices are used in courtrooms and juvenile offices for child welfare hearings, meetings, visitations, trainings, and other related events.

And then there’s the lawsuit brought against a Jacksonville, Fla., hospital:

Caserta said an UbiDuo communication device used at Baptist that allows patients and staff to communicate with keyboards and monitors isn’t helpful if the patient struggles to read, write or type, as several of her clients do.

sComm has also posted comments repeatedly saying they want to replace interpreters with UbiDuos. For example, take a look at this screenshot shared by Jahan Farzam-Behboodi:

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Derek Braun, Ph.D., a biology professor and the director of a molecular genetics laboratory, said in a response to my post: “I had a situation last year where I was in the hospital and in bad shape after a surgery that did not go well, and I couldn’t breathe. My head was swollen up. The doctors were trying to figure out if [I] had a pulmonary embolism.” He explains that the hospital brought in a TV for video remote interpreting. “Of course I couldn’t even see the TV because I was in bed and couldn’t sit up (or breathe!). My wife told me later that the connection was crappy anyway. She yelled for a real interpreter. That was almost criminal. What sComm is proposing is worse, and yet another step down the path to depraved indifference.”

Diane Plassey Gutierrez also wrote on my thread, “This is frightening. I recently had heart surgery and was unable to communicate with the medical staff for three days afterwards, due to fuzzy vision and weakness in my arms so that I couldn’t hold a pen. Fortunately the hospital brought in an interpreter and was able to communicate my immediate needs to the staff. I know I would be scared to go to a hospital or clinic that relied mainly on the UbiDuo with its frequent breakdowns, inadequate staff training in its use, and misunderstandings since not every Deaf person and not every medical staff person is fluent in written English.”

After seeing my Facebook post, several people posted comments on the sComm Facebook page, and sComm deleted most of them. I also asked at the sComm page if anyone on the sComm staff had deaf children, since I had four deaf children and knew firsthand the dangers of their mission to replace interpreters. They did not respond.

Given the grave, potentially life-threatening, misleading message sComm is promoting through social media and probably in its business-to-business marketing efforts, it is crucial that CEO Jason Curry step up to the plate and recognize that they need to develop a new marketing strategy that focuses on the truth, rather than hyping a one-size-fits-all solution that puts full, appropriate communication access at risk. sComm must also publicly recognize that the UbiDuo cannot be offered as a replacement, but as an option. Their current stance is dangerous, and puts entities using the UbiDuo in place of interpreters at great risk for misunderstandings, miscommunication and liability.

sComm may also rethink its statement on its website: “sComm is relentless in its efforts to transform face-to-face communication for deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing people and will not rest until it has achieved 100% one-on-one communication equality.” Certainly. sComm has been relentless in refusing to recognize that what they promote is not communication equality. And I will be relentless, too, about that.

UPDATE: sComm released a video responding to the criticism about its post. I share my thoughts on the sComm statement in this video response. The transcript is below.

Hi. When my article was released, I was taken aback by the thousands, actually, almost 20,000 views of the article, which was in relation to sComm and the UbiDuo. Of course, the majority expressed anger and dismay. Just a few hours ago tonight, March 27, sComm posted a video with Jason Curry, the head of sComm; sComm produces the UbiDuo. He said, in sign language, that sComm does not support the replacement of interpreters with UbiDuo; rather, the UbiDuo is ideal for when interpreters are not available. That was the essence of his message. I watched his video, and…I applaud him for responding to the criticism. Still, what he did was spin-doctoring, trying to control the information so that the real issue is pushed aside. I’d like to emphasize this, though. Some people seem to think the UbiDuo is fine. Yes, it’s perfectly fine — if you can use it effortlessly and are satisfied with it. If you don’t need an interpreter, then by all means, use it. But for situations involving hospitals, trauma, police, court, and specifically children — I have four deaf children aged 7 to 3. The older two probably could use it — but in cases of trauma, that’d be a very bad idea. I’d prefer to see an interpreter and even a certified deaf interpreter brought in so that the children can know everything that’s going on around the. Not just the conversation on screen, but also what’s being said around them that the interpreters could interpret. Not just for my children, but even for myself. Even if I’m fluent in English, when I’m upset, I prefer to sign, or when if I’m shocked. In crises, no, the UbiDuo isn’t a good idea. Besides, I don’t want anyone to tell me that I can’t have an interpreter, that I must use the UbiDuo. I get to decide, not them. That’s the essence of my stance.

At a recent workshop I presented, a participant shared the example of another person whose first language wasn’t English. This person went through a court report and marked off areas that were not true, but she wrote “not sure” [the signs for both words are similar]. She thought the word for “true” was “sure.” Obviously she didn’t have fluency in English, so for people like that, it’s not fair to force them to use the UbiDuo. They might think they can write in English, but they’re not in reality fluent. That’s risky. So my point is that I appreciate Jason’s comments, but no, sComm needs to go back and revise all of their messages, all of their website contents, print materials, everything. Even their meetings with everyone — sComm has numerous high-profile clients — governmental agencies, and everyone. They need to go back and inform everyone that the UbiDuo is an option, not a replacement. If they don’t do that, then they’re really endangering a lot of people’s lives. They say they’re relentless; so am I. I will keep on until they improve their message. I don’t want them to put me or my family at risk, period.

March 28: This story just gets more mind-boggling. Someone shared this link with me, produced by sComm.  At about 2:50, this appears:

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“Crippled”? Really? And the video also, even if jokingly, promotes VRS fraud. To stay updated, be sure to visit my Facebook page.

March 29: I posted this on my Facebook page tonight.

Hi, everyone! A huge thank you to everyone who has shared their input, and to everyone who has provided screenshots and videos posted by sComm.

Here’s what has happened since I first posted my article/video showing how sComm claimed that the UbiDuo should replace interpreters, particularly in child abuse cases. This article has been seen by tens of thousands of people. 

sComm did release a video clarifying that they did not support having only UbiDuos in child abuse cases (and I posted that on my website); I posted a follow-up video to that on Friday, March 27. Since then:

1. sComm has deleted all of my comments (unfortunately for them, I kept screenshots and copies of their videos). They have also deleted many of their dissenters’ comments. Otherwise, they’ve been staying quiet aside from having their supporters respond to dissenters.

2. More and more people have sent in emails and information demonstrating just how deep sComm’s mockery and oppression of ASL and interpreters has gone for quite some time now. It’s heart-breaking, truly, especially as a deaf business owner myself. I actually have no problem with the device itself; it’s the ethics (or lack of, rather) behind sComm’s marketing and claims demeaning ASL and mocking interpreters that I cannot support.

4. I am releasing a letter to sComm asking for a few things; that will be posted here and on my website tomorrow. 

5. In the meantime, I ask that we all not mock anyone’s signing or communication preferences. When anyone does this, this is no than sComm demeaning ASL. 

If you think what I have posted isn’t enough, here are additional screenshots — from February 2015 — of where sComm states that ASL is a simplified language.

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