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.

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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.

It’s Not Just About Knowing Signs

This article originally appeared at i711.com on June 29, 2006, and was updated on August 28, 2013.

On the first day of my American Sign Language (ASL) class years ago, I found it puzzling that many of the students signed with their mouths shut in a tight, horizontal line, with not one natural movement. This was a level two class, so these students weren’t new to the language. I asked each of the students who their ASL I teacher had been. It turns out that this teacher—who was deaf and from a deaf family—had told them that they were to never move their mouths when signing, not even for descriptions (CHA, OO, et cetera). It took me the rest of the semester to undo this.

As someone who teaches from time to time, I’m always fascinated by those who believe they can teach ASL but are sorely unqualified. I taught my first ASL class when I was 18, and I shudder to think of my lack of teaching skills back then. I had absolutely no formal training in the language, other than having signed all of my life. Even though two people in that class have gone on to become top-notch interpreters, I cringe at how I conducted class back then. Over years, with age and experience, I’ve come to see that the requirements of teaching any language are, in a nutshell: fluency, attitude, teaching skills and experience (and that spells out FATE, I know).

Fluency is a must for teaching any language. Many of us have horror stories of people—deaf or hearing—who think they’re fluent enough to teach ASL. In 2005, an interpreter came to my doctor’s appointment. She was outfitted in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt jacket, hardly proper attire for an interpreter. Her signing skills were mediocre, but I was so sick that I only cared about getting medicine from the doctor. After some polite chatting, she asked if I would be part of a panel for the advanced ASL class she taught. I asked her to repeat, to make sure I understood right; this woman—obviously not fluent in the language—was teaching ASL to hearing people who trusted her to be fluent? She said, “It’d be great to have you; we have a panel about deafness every year and this is the first time I’ve been able to find a deaf person.”

The consequences of someone not so fluent in ASL teaching the language are far-reaching: future teachers and community members have to retrain these students, if possible. The students then go out into the world mistakenly thinking they’re fluent and go on to maybe interpret or teach deaf children. Then deaf children or consumers deal with mediocre signing skills… and then the students are puzzled by why they get criticized if their teachers said they were fluent. And so on.

Then there’s attitude. This is critical; attitude can make or break the learning process. The teacher has to love the language and be willing to share what he knows. The teacher has to really embrace teaching. And he has to be open to new ideas, since language is always changing. It doesn’t matter if the teacher’s relatives are deaf, if he is deaf or hearing, or if he is astoundingly fluent in the language. It’s a no-brainer; attitude is what motivates students to come to class.

Next is the issue of teaching skills. So many signers think they can teach the language because they’re fluent in it and have a good attitude. What often happens is that the teachers come to class, teach vocabulary from a book and then administer tests. Nothing more. That’s a recipe for failure. ASL programs need to have a curriculum in place, with a strong support system. At one ASL program I taught in, I had no curriculum to work from, nor did I have any supplemental materials other than the textbooks I was given.

The next semester, I started teaching at a different college and was blown away by its resources. There were four file cabinets, four drawers each, with materials for each week of each course, at each level of ASL. The support system at this college, along with the incredible leadership of the program coordinator, taught me more than I could have ever learned in any other program. This is why I think training workshops like those offered by the Signing Naturally creators are so essential. Workshops like this teach a curriculum that emphasizes language and culture, rather than just vocabulary.

Finally, there’s experience. What this refers to is the Deaf experience. In a discussion on this topic, ASL instructor John Pirone of Massachusetts pointed out that if two candidates — one Deaf, one hearing — possessed each of these components, the Deaf teacher likely would be  more qualified. This is because the Deaf teacher has the “Deaf experience”–that is, s/he lives life as a Deaf person, and is more likely to teach the language’s and community’s nuances that even the most culturally-knowledgeable hearing teacher cannot.

Learning a language, obviously, is also learning the culture, boundaries, and the nuances of the community that uses the language. I’m not really saying anything new here, but it still amazes me how many people lack the FATE components of teaching. It’s important to recognize just how much impact  ASL teachers have so upon the community at large, often more than they’re given credit for.

The local ASL teacher at the high school here, who is a CODA, has hundreds of students in her ASL classes each year, so it’s only natural to assume that the impact she has upon deaf people here is minimal given the volume of her work. The opposite is true: even with this sheer number of students, the impact she’s had upon the community is phenomenal. I go to the food store, restaurants, gas stations, even the car dealership, and people there sign because they took her class. This is why it’s so crucial to ensure that an ASL teacher has all of the FATE components. Such ASL teachers make this country become just a bit more harmonious.

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Workshop: June 29, 2013 | Think of a Word, Quick! (New Jersey RID)

Think of a Word, Quick! 
New Jersey Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Eatontown, NJ

Trudy’s thoughts:

This workshop was filled to capacity, much to my happiness. It’s is one I have taught since 2000 in at least 25 locations around the nation.

Although the workshop has evolved over the years, the basic premise is always the same: use it or lose it. What I emphasize in this workshop is that one must use language in order to expand it. This seems like a no-brainer, but too many approach this from an academic standpoint rather than an everyday, basic perspective. To help drive this point home, I provide hands-on activities that help expand interpreters’ ASL and English vocabularies.  They’re activities that can be done anywhere, whether it be at home, on the train going somewhere, or even waiting at an appointment. They are such basic activities that I do all the time for my language development and expansion, because they really do work.

It’s also fascinated me to see how the very same reactions to the activities I present take place every time I do this workshop. It’s a wonderful sociological observation for me, and I always learn so much from those responses and coping strategies (because people who have attended my workshops know I never make the activities too easy–that’d completely defeat the point, right?).

This workshop is my all-time favorite workshop, and I hope to present it for many years to come.   Many thanks to the NJRID participants who made it so much fun, and especially for their kind words, openness, and willingness to discuss stumbling blocks in their interpreting work.

Evaluation comments:

Enjoyable. A combination of education and fun.

Excellent, and enjoyed the safe, fun environment.

Would love to have her back for a full workshop.

Hands down, one of the best workshops I’ve attended in a long time. Helped expand my thought process, made me think outside my habitual box, and made me laugh!

Great! So funny! Love your humor! Thanks.

Great workshop and practice I can use at home.

Good activities. They were fun!

Loved this workshop!! Would love an all-day version!!!

Better Does Not Always Lead to Best

Better opportunities is a phrase I see thrown around casually, sometimes defiantly. It often comes from parents of deaf children who reject certain educational settings or American Sign Language (ASL) for their children, saying, “I want better opportunities for my children.”

Yet this phrase often unintentionally serves as subtle oppression. Several years ago, an expectant parent told my husband, “I really hope the child is hearing, because it’ll mean better opportunities for her/him.” This parent had two other children—one hearing, one deaf. Why would this parent belittle the deaf child by saying that having another hearing child would be better? Why in the world would being deaf equate to less desirable opportunities? [Read more…]

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.

Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter

Originally appeared at Street Leverage. Presentation given at Potomac Chapter of RID, Columbia, MD, November 2012.

In the spirit of being transparent, the stories I’m about to share might be uncomfortable for some of you.  While I would like to speak my truth, I recognize that you have your own truth as well.  I trust that you will evaluate the stories I share and recognize the value in them. I actually was, and am, reluctant about presenting today because like many deaf people who speak out, I’ve had to endure a lot of negative feedback for being a “strong personality,” “angry deaf person,” and so on. My goal today is for you, as interpreters, to be open to possibly uncomfortable topics, uncomfortable truths, and uncomfortable analyses—whether they apply to you or not.

I believe that the best way to become bona fide allies is to embrace difficult ideas, opinions and, yes, facts. At the end of the day, we’re all in this together.

Four weeks ago, my two-year-old son fell and broke his leg. A week later, I took him, along with my one-year-old, to the orthopedic doctor for a check-up. Now, I live in a town where there are 250 to 300 deaf people living among 23,000 people; we have the deaf school, so everyone knows how to sign or how to work with interpreters. After about 45 minutes of waiting in the lobby—very unusual for a town of this size—I asked the receptionist about the severe delay. The receptionist never once looked up from her computer, saying that the doctor was backed up. I asked if we could see the doctor since my children were restless, hungry and my son, in a body cast from chest to toe, needed his medicine—which was at home. She said no. I said, “Could you please speak to the doctor or nurse?” She replied, “Oh, no, I can’t do that,” and I repeated my request. She adamantly refused.  [Read more…]

Bringing in the Right People

It never fails. “Who’s the new teacher?” is a main topic among parents, teachers, staff and students every spring and summer. With new teachers being hired every year, it’s understandably a topic of interest for stakeholders.

This is even truer for state schools for deaf students, given the cohesive Deaf community—and how many people worry about new hires’ language fluency, qualifications, respect for the community and culture, and experience.

Too many state schools for deaf students struggle to stay open because of misguided legislators and administrators who are, yes, hearing. Time after time, we are forced to explain to boards, administrators and governing bodies why it is so crucial that teachers and administrators not be only knowledgeable, but also have a firsthand understanding of what working in the Deaf community requires. Then our words are twisted and mangled beyond recognition in the media (“not deaf enough,” anyone?), and the community at large scoffs at our repeated pleas to be heard, calling us demanding, militant, and unrealistic.

The Minnesota State Academies (MSA)—comprised of the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf (MSAD) and Minnesota State Academy for the Blind, two separate campuses a mile or two apart—board hired a new superintendent. As the parent of four students who attend MSAD and as the wife of a MSAD teacher, I had a keen, vested interest in the process. [Read more…]

A time and place for everything

I recently watched Bernard Bragg’s new DVD, Bragg on Bragg, a delightful glimpse into Bragg’s life. Although there are numerous memorable moments on that DVD, one thing Bragg said jumped out at me. In talking about teachers and deaf children, he said that too often teachers prioritize grammar before communication—something that should not happen.

As he said that, I nodded quickly because this is something I have said many times as well. I also remembered a talk I gave to a group of parents who had deaf children. During the question-and-answer session, the participants asked fantastic questions. There was one father who had brought his 14-year-old son, which I talked about in a 2004 article:

A father of a 14-year-old boy went into an explanation of how his “hearing-impaired” son was obviously smart, but he found it frustrating that his son struggled with where to place commas. I glanced over at his son sitting next to him, and the boy was clearly embarrassed. The father ended by asking if commas were found in ASL.

I thanked the father for asking a good question, and explained that there are the equivalent of commas (head pauses, body movement, etc.) in ASL. I also said gently that I, as a deaf person, would be more concerned about whether a deaf child could read Hemingway or communicate his feelings. I added that I preferred to encourage deaf children in expressing themselves, rather than pigeonhole their comma use. The boy smiled at me and nodded in gratitude. The father sat down, deep in thought. After the session, the boy approached me shyly, and I was blown away by how intelligent he was, and how gentle yet beautiful his signing was. [Read more…]