My letter, 26 years later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letter to Silent News Editor, October 1990

Dear Editor:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trudy Suggs
Westmont, IL

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

Full, unfiltered access to ASL and the world

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

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

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

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

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

The Power of the Written Word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What have I done?!

IMG_3255small

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

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

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

Better Does Not Always Lead to Best

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

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

An Epilogue: Can I Speak Now?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Bringing in the Right People

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

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

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

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

A time and place for everything

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

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

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

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

If it ain’t broken…

This article originally appeared in American Society for Deaf Children’s The Endeavor, Fall 2010.

I saw a post on Facebook recently that made me pause. A friend wrote that she had told her two-year-old son, “Mommy’s ears are broken, cannot hear…can’t hear, I use my hands to talk.” Her son then looked inside her ears to “see” what was wrong.

As the parent of three Deaf children under the age of two, I thought this was a cute anecdote. I also liked how she said, “I use my hands to talk.” But what made me pause was the mention of “broken.”

Let me go off in another, but relevant, direction. In recent issues of Reader’s Digest, which I have read faithfully since I was yea high, there were letters from parents of deaf children who proudly proclaimed that their children never let being deaf stop them. While I understood where the parents were coming from, I thought to myself, “Why in the world would they think in that framework?” [Read more…]

Can we all just get along?

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

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

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