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.

Suicide is no laughing matter

A white male with a graying beard is standing in front of what appears to be a lake, smiling . He has on a white t-shirt and mirrored sunglasses that show the reflection of someone taking his photograph. Under his t-shirt is a pen clipped to his collar.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 descriptions: The first image shows a white man with a graying beard in front of what appears to be a lake. He is wearing a white t-shirt with a black pen clipped onto his collar from under his shirt. Smiling broadly, his mirrored sunglasses show the reflection of the photographer.  The next image is a screenshot of the number of shares, comments, and likes for Ronnie’s video.

Late in the evening on Friday, May 6, I watched a video by a friend, Renee, sharing how upset she was about another video she saw. Of course, I checked this other video out to see what she was talking about — and became equally troubled. I’ve been thinking about it all weekend and will continue thinking about it for a long time to come.

On Friday (or late Thursday night) at 3:07 a.m., Ronnie Craft of Virginia posted a video on his Facebook page. He stated he was upset about his girlfriend’s infidelity and the man “bothering” his girlfriend. Behind him was what appeared to be a rifle or shotgun of some sort, although it could very well have been a pipe. After he shared his hurt and anger, he said he would be dead the next morning.

Ronnie indeed committed suicide that morning, just as he had threatened. Although the video has since been removed, it stayed on his page for several days — and the comments continued even after the confirmation of his passing. One person, a couple of days after the video, posted that Ronnie was a “f**ktard” just trying to get attention and that we shouldn’t give him any.

A screenshot shows that the video was shared 83 times with four likes.That wasn’t the most troubling thing about the video, though. What stunned my friend Renee, and me, was that at least 83 people shared the video on their Facebook pages. Although the comments showed that people did try to get help for Ronnie, there were also four people who clicked “like.” This is where social media sometimes gets confusing: many people will click “like” as a way of showing empathy. Even so, anytime someones makes a threat to harm himself or someone else, we must always choose immediate safety.

I have never met Ronnie, nor will I ever have the opportunity to. As I watched his video, my heart ached at his hurt and anger. I was even more disturbed by the response (especially the shares), trying to understand why they would do such a thing. Have we really become so immune to online “drama” that we simply repost angry and hurt videos to revel in people’s emotions? Is it worse to watch a video like this and say nothing? I saw the video far too late; had I seen it in time, I would have immediately contacted area authorities, especially since his post showed his location.

Suicide is not a rare act. According to dosomething.org, nearly 30,000 Americans commit suicide every year. This doesn’t include attempted suicide; each suicide represents 25 attempts. The website also says that one person commits suicide every 16.2 minutes on the average, and over 50% are committed with a firearm. These are eye-opening numbers. So why is there still such a stigma accompanying suicide? Aside from historical and religious teachings that identify suicide as a sin, it may be because we get worked up about the aftermath of a suicide and all the people left behind. Or it could be because we’re angry we didn’t help the person in time. Maybe the suicide hits too close to home, or we think the person is crazy to even consider death.

I’ve lost quite a few people to suicide over the years, and there’s a common thread that I see in each and every suicide: people saying that it is such a selfish act. While it may seem selfish to the people left behind, it isn’t selfish for the person committing it. Rather, it’s a final act of desperation to stop the intense, searing pain of hurt and anger. This suicide risk is heightened among people not fully aware of the tools for dealing with of depression, hopelessness, and pain. Add to that the fact that there is a severe lack of access to mental health services for deaf people, and it’s a volatile matter.

Back in 2005, I wrote about a friend who attempted suicide:

She changed her mind in the process, and decided to call local suicide resources to try and get some help. Nine of the ten places hung up immediately when they heard that it was a relay call. The tenth one said, “We don’t provide interpreters,” and hung up before my friend even said a word. Eventually, she found a friend to confide in, but still needs counseling services that are American Sign Language (ASL) accessible.

Another friend had suicidal thoughts several years ago. When I drove him to the hospital at his request, he was sent home after an overnight stay because they didn’t have the appropriate services. The interpreters sent for this assignment all knew my friend through work. My friend was embarrassed and frustrated, and to date, has never gotten the counseling and help he wants.

Meanwhile, until better alternatives are developed, people like my friends will continue wrestling with their emotional and mental needs, and feeling desolate and dismal about recovering from their emotional/mental pain. The Deaf community cannot let this go on anymore. We need to have mental health services immediately available and accessible for Deaf people in ASL with no rescheduling, no delay, and no cultural barriers.  Read the full article here.

It’s been 20 years since these incidents, and little seems to have changed. Today we have counselors such as the Deaf Counseling Center with deaf licensed therapists specializing in services to Deaf people, but they are few and far in between. More and more therapists are providing services via videophones or via email, but that’s not the same as face-to-face services.

At 3:07 a.m. on May 6, when Ronnie Craft posted his video, he certainly could have called a hotline using video relay services. Yet would the hotline worker have understood what Ronnie was dealing with? Would the video interpreter have the skills to interpret this call? The scrutiny found within the close-knit deaf community, the language barriers, and all the cultural differences? Probably not.

Let’s go back to people’s sick fascination with online drama, especially suicide. What can we do to change this? I don’t know. Suicide is such a hot button, and can set off a lot of negative reactions from people, deaf or hearing. But get this: suicide is never a joke, and should never be taken lightly. If ever we can get rid of the stigma attached to suicide and stop being such jerks online, maybe we can learn how to help people feeling desolate and hurt. It’s often misstated that people who really want to commit suicide often will do it without calling attention to themselves, so those who post public comments, videos, or letters are simply “attention whores.”

Here’s the thing. It doesn’t matter if someone is trying to get attention by threatening suicide; we need to pay attention every single time. Even if a person is threatening suicide just for the sake of getting attention, that itself shows the person needs help. Anyone threatening suicide — seriously or jokingly — must be taken seriously at all times, and respected.

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

A Quick Look at Everyday Disempowerment of Deaf People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The original disempowerment article can be found here.

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

#iamdeaf

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

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

 

 

Giving Credit Where It Wasn’t Due

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Full, unfiltered access to ASL and the world

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

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

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

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

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

sComm: An Update

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

Warning: This article includes graphic language.

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

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

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

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

[Read more…]

Speech given at a high school in 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Getting to the Heart of the Matter

I first saw the term DEAF-HEART at an interpreting conference back in the early 2000s. There was a heated discussion in a workshop, and an interpreter stood on stage saying how important it was to have DEAF HEART—she signed “deaf” over the heart. My friend, a top-level interpreter, quickly looked at me to see how I reacted. I naturally was caught off-guard by that sign and turned to her, saying, “What the…?” She giggled at my reaction, and said, “Yeah, I know. A new phrase that’s catching on.”

I had a sick feeling in my stomach, although I didn’t understand quite what bothered me so much about the phrase. It didn’t help that the newly certified interpreter on stage was not yet fluent in American Sign Language. Later that day, I chatted with other deaf people at the conference and discovered that I wasn’t the only one bothered by this phrase.

Fast forward to the 2013 Street Leverage event in Atlanta, where this term seemed to be all the rage. Even Deaf presenters stood onstage and talked about what DEAF-HEART meant. I wanted to write about this phrase then, but I still hadn’t quite pinpointed why it was such an abrasive phrase to me. Over time, I talked to many people: interpreters, Deaf people, CDIs, and everyone else in between. The same messages kept emerging: they, too, didn’t like the phrase but weren’t sure why. The select few (all hearing) who did like the phrase said the phrase made them feel like they belonged to the Deaf community.

Let’s explore the history of this phrase. While there’s no hard evidence of exactly when DEAF-HEART began being used, the phrase has been around at least 15 years, based on the first time I saw it. I spoke with Lewis Merkin, CDI, who said he and a group (including CDIs Jimmy Beldon, Alisha Bronk, Janis Cole, Kristin Lund, and Priscilla Moyers) had met in December 2008 as part of a Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) Deaf Members in Leadership committee meeting. As reported in the Spring 2009 issue of the RID VIEWS:

The best approach to reminding members of the value of an “of Deaf” perspective is to create an atmosphere where this occurs naturally. We discussed “Deaf Heart” [sic] concepts (ASL, visually accessible information, collectivism vs. individualism, culture, history, CODA input, etc.) and looked at how this can be incorporated (at the 2009 RID National Conference, collaborating with NAD, CIT and ASLTA to incorporate allies principles into interpreter training program curricula, revisit the wording of RID’s strategic challenges, etc.).

In that same issue, Bronk wrote in “Interpreters: Gatekeepers for the Deaf Interpreter Community”:

We should all be open to sharing our experiences, frustrations and joys of our work in an effort to improve ourselves and our field. We know that deaf and hearing interpreters, working in teams, can provide the best service to many Deaf community members, enhance all of our skills, and bring what the Deaf community calls “Deaf-heart” [sic] back into our field.

Merkin told me, “I know when we were talking about it, it was to find a way of explaining what we considered positive traits. How it’s been co-opted is another story.”

I continue to be uncomfortable with it for a number of reasons, and I continue to be surprised by how many people have expressed their discomfort with this phrase but are hesitant to share their discomfort for fear of backlash.

With the interpreting field becoming much more professionalized—not a bad thing, in any way—I find that more and more interpreters are trying to use different labels, including “having DEAF-HEART.” John, a friend I shared this article with said it best: “Without having the lived experience of being deaf, you may be able to identify various factors and experiences deaf people have on an intellectual level, but at the end of the day, you don’t have that personal experience.” This is true even for those who are hearing and have Deaf family members; while they may see the good and bad experiences of being a Deaf person, they don’t experience it firsthand.

I remember when I first understood this. Ironically, it was a hearing person who taught me this—a straight, white male who people love to hate: a police officer. Ken and I were co-teaching a course at the Illinois State Police Academy after two deaf men had been killed by police within a month’s span back in 1996. A high-ranking Illinois State Police administrator, Ken happened to be my graduate school notetaker and became a trusted ally and friend. We naturally joined forces, with our work leading to a statewide curriculum addressing how police should communicate with deaf people.

During a class, Ken asked the 60 cadets, “How many of you had met a deaf person before today?” Only five or six raised their hands, which surprised even me. He then asked me, “Trudy, how many times this morning did you have to tell someone you were deaf?” I mentally did the calculations, and said, “Five or six times.” It was only 10:00 a.m. when I gave that answer, and I suddenly understood just how much being Deaf shaped my life experiences, even for simple tasks such as getting gas or buying food.

This illustrates exactly why no matter how “Deaf” a hearing person may be or feel, that person will never have firsthand knowledge of the tension or even fear we have when we are in a situation involving communication. They can empathize, of course, but it’s a completely different experience when you’re actually living 24 hours a day as a Deaf person.

Another reason I bristle at DEAF-HEART is that it seems as if this is yet another way to try and gain entrance to the core of our community. Can you imagine telling someone, “That [white American] interpreter has ASIAN-HEART”? While it obviously is meant to be complimentary, it’s really not.

This is the crux of the problem for me: how interpreters consistently and continuously try to be as integrated into the Deaf community as they possibly can be. I can’t count how many times an interpreter or ASL student has excitedly said to me, “Wow! That person thought I was Deaf or had Deaf parents!” as if this was the highest praise available. And of course there are those who say, “That interpreter really does have a DEAF-HEART.” To me, this is an example of cultural appropriation—even if unintentional. I also recognize that many Deaf people promote this phrase without understanding the weight it holds. One Deaf interpreter said, “DEAF-HEART is like branding. By gaining this label, you’re branded ‘in’ with Deaf people.”

John, my friend, added, “To me, DEAF-HEART has a negative connotation because it implies that one does ‘goodwill.’ We do not need their goodwill, we need them to respect us and treat us equally.  That’s it. Why isn’t having our respect enough?  Why do we need to reward hearing people, who represent the majority, by giving them a name like DEAF-HEART when they are supposed to respect our culture and language, anyway?”

Yet it seems many hearing interpreters and deaf people have become enamored with the idea that it is necessary to be as Deaf as possible to be accepted in the Deaf community. This is not appropriate, nor true. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being an outsider who supports the Deaf community. You may ask, “But what about trust? How can we gain Deaf people’s trust?”

Ah, but there’s a word for this: ally. I think this word is so much more powerful than DEAF-HEART. Ally has been in use for years, and for good reason; most dictionaries define it as coming together for a common cause or purpose and in mutual respect.

One can be an ally and have access to the community by practicing that word’s meaning to the highest standards possible. John added, “To be a true ally, people have to practice humility, which means they do not tell Deaf people they have gotten our respect or share the praises they get from us. Humility and respect are what makes them true allies.”

Exactly. And that’s why I will always choose to work with someone who is sincerely an ally rather than someone who supposedly has DEAF-HEART, because to me, a genuine ally means someone who actually works with you to make something happen, shows respect, and understands better than anyone else that this is your experience.

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The Power of the Written Word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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