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.

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.

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Remembering Chuck Baird (1947-2012)

I first met Chuck Baird when I was 10. My parents took me to see King of Hearts, a magnificent production by the National Theatre of the Deaf. To this day, it’s the only theatrical production I ever really enjoyed. After the show, Chuck came out to mingle with the audience. I remember him as being gregarious; he didn’t talk down to me, and I walked away in awe of his sincerity.

Fifteen years later, I went with friends to the annual International Center on Deafness festival in Chicago. By then, I had become aware of Chuck’s notoriety as an artist, and was a bit star-struck when a friend introduced us. I told him of how we met nearly two decades before. He told me later that it was at that moment that he knew that we were meant to be soul friends.

Today, 30 years after I first met Chuck and three years after his passing, I think about him often. We became extremely close in the years after our second meeting, and I came to know him not as Chuck the deaf artist, but as someone who constantly found himself at odds with his own world views, beliefs, and values. He and I were kindred spirits, and he helped bring me out of a dark time. I took to calling him my heart savior, because he helped heal my heart with his wisdom and belief in me.

We saw each other frequently, usually at deaf events, and we were inseparable when together. We met up in Kentucky, California, Missouri, New York, Louisiana, Washington, D.C., Connecticut, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and so many other places. He was fiercely loyal to me as I was to him, and showed that in so many ways when we visited.

As I became busier, having four children in four years, and as he relocated to Austin, Texas, we didn’t talk as often. Still, we continued to meet up from time to time. A month after I had my first child, Chuck made a detour from a stay in South Dakota to see me during the 2008 Clerc Classic tournament in Minnesota. As always, it was like no time had gone by. We talked nonstop, and I remember him looking at my daughter in awe, a child who was an extension of me.

Chuck was truly a Renaissance man. He was also the perfect example of a starving, temperamental artist — always on the hunt for the next paycheck, the next place to live. That sometimes was frustrating for me, because I knew intimately his amazing talents and his mind-blowing brilliance. He was and is revered as an artist, yet he never made the money he deserved. We spent hours talking about this, along with our life experiences, Deaf history, philosophy, God, friends, books, and everything else under the sun. He gave me so many beautiful things: a book about covered bridges, a leather journal, his artwork, jewelry like a necklace with shapes resembling the ASL sign for “communicate,” and best of all, his time.

When Chuck told me he had cancer, I was heartbroken. I felt helpless because I was so far away, and pregnant yet again. As his time came closer, we became more spiritually connected, even though we didn’t talk often. He and I agreed that he would mail me all of my letters back to me, so I could read the many handwritten letters we had exchanged. I read each letter and cried and laughed at how raw and honest we had been with each other. I then destroyed them, as Chuck and I had agreed.

Chuck, or CCB as I always called him, became increasingly religious as he neared the end. He told me about how one night during of his many visits to the hospital, he was in bed praying. He said he began singing, imagining angels around him as he sang. “I didn’t care if anyone heard me or my deaf voice at the time. I just sang, and felt so incredibly connected to God,” he said. The radiance from his face as he told me this story gave me chills.

The last time I saw him was exactly a month before he died. We chatted for two hours via video as he ate soup and fiddled with the baseball cap he had on. Even though I had seen him a few times, it was still always a shock to see how thin he had gotten. I experienced so much joy that night, even as bittersweet as it was. I somehow knew this would be our last face-to-face conversation, but didn’t dare say it.

An e-mail he sent me immediately after our conversation contained his last words to me: “I loved and enjoyed our chat tonight. Love you in peace thru Christ, my true friend. ccb.”

I was among the first to learn of his death on the morning of February 10, 2012. I had slept fitfully all night, knowing he was going to leave us any minute. I sat up in bed, numbed by the text message I had just read. I knew a great spirit had left us, one who was often underappreciated yet was incredibly beloved. A mutual close friend warned me that people would come out of the woodwork once he passed away, and he was right. So many articles, posts and emails were shared about his “greatness” — mostly in reference to his acting and art. All I kept wanting to say was, “But you don’t know how he was so much more than his art. He was a tormented soul who found joy in the littlest things and had so much love for the mind, the soul and God.” It’s taken me this long to even feel comfortable talking about how extraordinary Chuck was.

Chuck Baird with Trudy SuggsWhen I think of Chuck, I remember how he had the chubbiest fingers and how I took pleasure in watching them create masterfully crafted words and art. I think of how we squabbled often, but always quickly soothing the other. I think of how I scolded him for being so tactless — he once said, when I showed him a picture right after the birth of my second child, “Oh my gosh, you look fat!” I think about how he got annoyed with me for being bossy, especially when I lectured him about his weight; our annoyances certainly went both ways. I think about how he had such a passionate spirit. I think about how shockingly salt-and-pepper his hair was and how his beard became the same. I think about how we always laughed at the littlest things.

Mostly, I think about how Chuck showed me what a deep, true friendship is: full of ups and downs, exasperation, delight, wonder, and love all coming together to create a marvelous connection. He was, and is, my heart savior — something that I can never repay him for.

Happy birthday, CCB.

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Preserving Deaf History in Wax: Don Baer

screenshot of Deafwax.comAs I entered the small exhibition area, I  jumped in fright. To my right, there was a person blankly staring at me. Don Baer laughed as I did a double take; I realized (slowly) that it was actually a wax figure of William “Dummy” Hoy that Don had created. The first thing I thought after I looked at the wax figure, “Wow, Hoy was really short.” Even though I had known Hoy was only 5’4”, I was amazed at how much taller I was than him. What was even more remarkable was how I felt as if I could reach out and start signing to Hoy right there and then. That was, and is, the best aspect of Don’s work in creating realistic wax figures: he helped bring Deaf history alive.

When I was Silent News editor in chief, the first public event I attended was the 2000 Deaf Expo in Long Beach, Calif. Everyone there told me I had to see Don’s wax exhibition at the exposition. As I introduced myself to Don, who was also small in stature, he lit up and named a few mutual friends. His wonderful passion set the tone for the tour, and we chatted endlessly as he guided me through the packed exhibition area. I gawked at how realistic the wax figures were, and marveled at Hoy, Juliette Gordon Low, Thomas Gallaudet, Alice Cogswell, and Laurent Clerc. Seeing the figures made my cherished heritage come alive for me. It was obvious from looking at Don’s face, as people continuously marveled at the authentic-looking figures, that their awe was the best part of his hard work.

In a June 2001 Silent News article by Glenn Lockhart, Baer said renowned sculptor Douglas Tilden heavily influenced his work. The article also reported that each sculpture’s process averaged three months of work and over $1,000 on average:

A clay sculpture that serves as a frame for the head is done following dimensions gleaned from the photographs, then a plaster mold is made from it. After the mold has set, it is then emptied of clay and filled with hot wax. After adding glass eyes and hair, some refinement sculpting brings sharp definition to the facial features and a coat of oil glazes the wax, giving it that realistic sheen. A trip to thrift stores to costume the waxen beings is the final touch.

When I learned last week that Don had passed away on Dec. 10 from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — also known as Lou Gehring’s disease —  I was, of course, saddened. I have no idea if he would have remembered our visit, but the work he took on left a lasting impact on many people, including me. I hope his work continues to bring history alive for future generations.

Don’s work can be viewed at www.deafwax.com (link is no longer active). 

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Where Have They All Gone?

This originally appeared at NAD’s Members-Only website area at www.nad.org.

Recently, I was preparing a press release for one of my clients who owns a deaf-run business. As the client and I were talking about where to send the press release, I suddenly had a startling realization.

There weren’t any deaf newspapers I could send the press release to.

I started ticking deaf publications off in my head. Silent News is apparently kaput. Newswaves – gone. Deaf USA is a trade publication now distributed by CSD. DeafNation quickly folded – temporarily, it said – in April 2000, and they show no sign of returning anytime soon. DeafCanadaToday closed down some time ago. The rest are either newsletters or organizational publications (i.e., NADmag), or feature magazines (i.e. Hearing Health – which, incidentally, has been sold to Deafness Research Foundation).

Deaf people suddenly have very sparse resources for them to share news, opinions and information within the deaf community. Where can we find in-depth coverage of sports? What about deaf events? Where will we find profiles of not only prominent deaf leaders, but of also ordinary deaf people?

The past five years haven’t been too kind to newspapers within the deaf community. What is happening? Why are they all disappearing?

I say it’s because of The Big Three affecting any publication in the mainstream, and especially affecting deaf-oriented publications: Money, mismanagement, and the Internet.

It’s all about $Moola$
Money is probably the biggest factor. Ever since I left Silent News in late January of 2002, I’ve been asked the same question by practically every person who asks me about the decline of newspapers in the deaf community: “Why don’t you set up your own newspaper?”

My response is always the same: “You got the money for me?” I haven’t gotten a “yes” yet.

People don’t quite realize how expensive it is to run a monthly, even quarterly, publication. For one thing, printing costs have skyrocketed – not only for small community newspapers like Silent News, but for major publications and university materials, too.

And then there’s overhead costs… staffing costs… and the costs of the lifeblood of any publication: the photographers, illustrators and writers. Usually advertising and subscriber rates cover these costs, but declining subscription numbers – a problem for almost all publications today – and struggles with getting advertisers to pay up or place ads have not helped.

Advertising is a Catch-22 situation: Companies or people like to advertise, but don’t always want to pay for it, so they often resort to advertising via e-mail or via websites. Using e-mail or websites is a much cheaper, sometimes free, method than paying for printed advertisements. This, obviously, hurts publications that rely upon advertisement income. Another frustration is when companies try to negotiate a barter ad, where they get free ad space in exchange for listing the publication’s name as a sponsor. The publication makes absolutely no money this way, and the free publicity usually isn’t very beneficial.

I’ve also had many people say, “Well, how expensive could it be to start up a newspaper? I’d be willing to do work for free, and I know many others would, too.” Sure, of course – but for how long? I actually started writing for a deaf newspaper for free many years ago – but it seemed unfair when the newspaper started making money off my work and didn’t pay me.

Keep in mind that many of these start-up businesses – much like the dot.com craze – flop after a few years. The Small Business Administration says the majority of small businesses fail eventually, and 50% of them fail within the first year. Why should start-up businesses within the deaf community be any different?

I’ve seen the same delusions of grandeur with many other individuals, mostly inexperienced, who want to start their own business within the deaf community.

Mind you, I’m all for dreams and visions. But I’m also interested in solid, actual business plans and numbers. We’ve seen publication after publication close down because of money. You gotta have money to make money, and you gotta know how to handle money.

This brings me to the second reason: mismanagement.

“I’m The Boss, That’s Why!”
The key to any successful organization is its leader. With a bad leader, you’re going to have chaos waiting to erupt. I can safely say that many of the leaders at the newspapers I worked at had minimal business experience, and a lack of understanding about how important the writers were. The successful publishers and editors are the ones who believe that reliable writers are the heart and soul of their publication.

In my 16 years of working for publications within the deaf community, I’ve seen one constant: a lack of appreciation for writers and contributors. Writers are often expected to write for free – something that would rarely happen with mainstream publications. I once was approached by an online publication that asked me to become the editor for little pay. I immediately asked, “How will you pay the writers?” Their response was, “I don’t understand. Why would the writers be paid at first? They should prove their work to us before we pay them.”

I quickly declined their offer.

Publishers must understand that even if operations and staffing costs are running them into the ground – which wouldn’t ideally happen if they were well-prepared and well-budgeted – they must get rid of their expectations that people will write for free. With no writers, they have no stories. With no stories, they have no subscribers. It’s really quite that simple.

Websites and the Dreaded Forward Syndrome
The third reason is the Internet – which is both a blessing and a curse for the publication world. The Internet is wonderful for finding information and contacting people. USA-L was a valuable tool I utilized more often than not when I was editor over at Silent News. Yet, at the same time, publications have been stunted by the immediate nature of news appearing on websites – especially deaf newspapers.

When the Gallaudet murders happened, the whole world knew about it within 24 hours. When, a month later, Silent News published an in-depth story, the murders were pretty much old news. Yet, for many other stories (like the Errol Shaw shooting in Detroit), we were able to provide in-depth information that weren’t available on many of the sites, thanks to exclusive interviews and information gathering.

Publications have addressed this by providing an online version of their printed newspaper or magazine – but what if you’re a small deaf newspaper with limited funds? Then you’re probably going to be affected by the Internet.

There are also so many websites that try to be a site for “deaf news,” when in reality they’re a compilation of all the news articles about deaf and hard of hearing people that appear in the world’s newspapers and magazines. Search engines and newsgroups easily do this. Where are the original, in-depth stories, written by deaf people and published by deaf people?

Let’s also not forget the annoying Forwarding Syndrome within the deaf community. Anyone can type up an e-mail containing jokes or actual news, and forward it to someone, who will then pass this along to about twenty other people, and these twenty people forward it to forty others.

With this Forwarding Syndrome in place, who needs newspapers anymore?

Subscribers Are the Backbone
One thing bothered me when I was deluged with e-mail after word of yet another deaf newspaper’s demise got out: Why didn’t these subscribers take matters into their own hands, rather than complaining about losing their respect for deaf publications? Why didn’t they demand an answer from the publisher of the newspaper, rather than leaving the paper’s fate to rumors of a buyout? At least three of the now-defunct deaf newspapers did not even have the respect to at least send out a letter of explanation to their subscribers and advertisers or post a message on their websites. If I were a subscriber or advertiser treated this way, I’d be hopping mad and trying to find out answers, fast.

The subscribers could’ve easily filed a class lawsuit to get their money back, filed reports with the Better Business Bureau or filed complaints with the state’s consumer affairs division. Why didn’t they? I’m not sure. Perhaps they expected someone else to take care of matters; perhaps they simply didn’t know their rights as consumers; or they just didn’t think the subscription fee was worth the trouble.

So what do we do? Do we set up yet another newspaper? Hope that some benevolent corporation will save the newspaper? Resort to reading these canned-news websites that cannot offer experienced and qualified editors? Put faith in one of the many new magazines popping up?

Quite frankly, I don’t know.

All I know is that I used to have three deaf-oriented newspapers coming to my house each month. Today, I don’t have even one to look forward to anymore.

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