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.


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.



Speech given at a high school in 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Lead or Not to Lead? Sharing Power in the Field of Interpreting

This article originally appeared in the spring/summer 2014 issue of the RID VIEWS (Volume 31, Issue 2).

View it as a PDF file: Suggs-Bowen_Article.pdf

By Doug Bowen-Bailey, CI/CT, and Trudy Suggs, CDI

In the field of interpreting, a critical question is how to share power in leadership. While interpreters might often think of this at the organizational level, they also need to see this power-sharing method in daily practice.

As certified interpreters, we have worked together on many projects. We are also both passionate about language, both written and signed. In our partnership, we frequently have had to navigate ways to share power as a hearing person and a deaf person. Our work, however, often focuses on much broader issues than linguistics.

One such example of power-sharing becoming an issue emerged during a video project where we worked with a hearing project manager in creating an ASL version of an English-based curriculum. The project manager did not sign and was relatively new to the deaf community, although he had worked on other deaf community projects in the past. He had tremendously good intentions and was very committed to access. Yet at the beginning of this collaboration, he frequently communicated via telephone with Doug on project details, and Doug would then let Trudy know of the conversations. The conversations were rarely long or substantive, but they put Doug in the role of gatekeeper. As a result, Trudy responded to ideas rather than helping to create them, a significant shift since it was Trudy who had initially advocated for Doug’s involvement in this project.

After a few times, Trudy expressed a bit of concern about this process. Doug agreed, especially since he had also noted this pattern. Together, they determined that using a text-based online meeting platform would allow everyone to have equal access (with the added benefit of having a transcript for notes). Also discussed was who should propose this idea to the project manager; we decided that Doug should do it because, as a hearing person, there was less risk that he would be perceived negatively for challenging a hearing norm. Doug then offered this alternative to the project manager, pointing out the barriers created by the phone calls. The project manager quickly agreed, and the text chat turned out to be very successful in allowing all parties to more fully contribute.

Such instances often are so subtle that they don’t appear as clear delineations of power, but over time, they can become leadership challenges. In exploring such daily opportunities for sharing power, a better understanding of leadership can be achieved. We don’t intend to lift up our choices as the ideal model; however, there are principles in how we responded that may be helpful. The steps in that process consisted of:

  • Understanding the power of gatekeeping
  • Committing to shared decision-making
  • Analyzing the dynamics of power and risk
  • Creating a joint plan of action

Understanding the Power of Gatekeeping

It is important to look at the function and power of gatekeeping. In this example, gatekeeper meant being in a position to allow access to a system or institution. Initially, Trudy was the gatekeeper for Doug by advocating for his involvement in the project. However, in American dominant hearing culture, society is much more comfortable with hearing people in the role of gatekeeper. Whether rooted in audism, or in the ease that many find in communicating through spoken English, or a combination of both, Doug quickly became the gatekeeper.

In an August 2014 interview, Jimmy Beldon identified in the dynamics of opportunities for hearing and deaf interpreters:

…sometimes CDIs will see doors open and invite a hearing interpreter to work — in a team. But then the hearing interpreter walks ahead and goes through the door alone, leaving the CDI behind. When the hearing interpreter enters alone, it means that interpreter starts building a relationship with people and with clients while also building skills. As typically is the case, when people build skills, they naturally become leaders and accept leadership roles.

Such a pattern leads to a power imbalance. Fortunately, we were able to recognize this dynamic in that particular project and managed it in a way that did not leave either of us behind. In fact, for certain projects, it has been critical for Trudy serve as gatekeeper. For example, we have needed to recruit talent who are Deaf and fluent in ASL. Her understanding of and relationships within the Deaf community make her much more effective in this role than Doug can be.

Valuing the Wisdom of the Deaf Experience

A common approach to making decisions about deaf people is to simply exclude them and determine, based on various altruistic and systematic values, what is “best” for them. As discussed in Trudy’s Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter presentation for Street Leverage, disempowerment is the taking away of power. She shares examples of how everyday disempowerment happens at minuscule, yet influential, levels. This, in turn, creates a cycle of situational disempowerment and economic disempowerment — thereby continuing the (unintentional and intentional) oppression of deaf people in every facet of their lives.

In the aforementioned project, Doug’s moving into the gatekeeper role certainly could have had economic consequences. If Doug had ignored or minimized Trudy’s concerns, he could have gone on to build relationships that led to further projects for him while leaving Trudy behind, creating economic and situational disempowerment.

In her StreetLeverage presentation, Trudy pointed out some other approaches:

By refusing to control situations, by deferring to the deaf person whenever appropriate, by allowing the consumers to control the situation, and by ensuring that you don’t speak on behalf of the entire deaf community especially if you’re hearing—you can take steps towards ensuring that deaf people retain their power while you do your job. (Suggs, 2012b)

The idea of hearing people deferring to deaf people is not done out of pity or patronization. The justification for it is not that deaf people have experienced oppression, so therefore hearing interpreters should simply back off. Rather, it comes from a valuing of the wisdom that comes from Deaf epistemology, which is defined as “the nature and extent of the knowledge that deaf individuals acquire growing up in a society that relies primarily on audition to navigate life” (Hauser et al., 2010, p. 486).   In other words, the experience of being deaf in a hearing world provides insights that hearing interpreters can’t have access to unless they are open to following deaf people’s lead.

Another deaf-hearing team experience showcases this deference as a key step. Nic Zapko and Patty Gordon are the creators of StoryBlend, an immersion experience that uses theater to build ASL and interpreting skills. Nic, who is deaf, and Patty, who is hearing, have noticed a consistent dynamic in the process as it moves from the first to the second week. Initially, all interactions are in ASL. By the second week, participants begin to work on translating ASL into English. At some point, the atmosphere shifts from being Deaf-centric to hearing-centric. Nic was the first to notice this; in fact, Patty states that she often doesn’t see or sense it until Nic points it out. She has learned to defer to Nic’s identification of the shift so that it can be addressed for the benefit of all involved with StoryBlend.

Analyzing the Dynamics of Power and Risk

In identifying issues related to leadership and power-sharing, the next step is to make an assessment of the dynamics of power and risk. Valuing the wisdom of and deferring to the leadership of deaf people does not mean that hearing interpreters can, or should, simply step back from taking action or responsibility. In some situations, a deaf person may provide the insight and leadership, but it may be too risky to be the point person in carrying out an action. Consequently, a hearing interpreter may serve that purpose as an ally. This does not mean that the deaf person is giving up power to someone with privilege. Rather, taking an honest assessment of the dynamics of the situation helps figure out the best way to address how to achieve an objective with the least risk.

In the initial example with the project manager, we determined that Doug had less to risk in challenging the hearing norm of phone conversations. One of the ironies of hearing privilege is that hearing people can often bring forward the exact same critique of a situation and be perceived as insightful, whereas a deaf person may be perceived as militant, divisive, or angry.   Trudy shared an example of this labeling in another StreetLeverage presentation (Suggs, 2012a). In that situation, the deaf people involved were simply sharing experiences, yet they were perceived as venting, divisive and angry. (It’s also important to note that anger can be a legitimate response to experiences of oppression and using such labels can be expressions of privilege.)

The dynamics of audism often means the risk can be even more subtle. To use a non-interpreting example, Oprah Winfrey was denied access to a store in Paris. She felt that she had been discriminated against because she was black. The store claimed that they were setting up for a private party and couldn’t let her in. Tim Wise suggests that the reason doesn’t matter. What is more significant is that “Oprah Winfrey, with all her money, all her power, and all her influence, still had to wonder, even if only for a moment, whether her race had trumped all that in the eyes of another person” (Wise, 2008, p. 72). Deaf people frequently have similar thoughts and experiences when encountering systems and institutions that favor the ability to hear, or hearing privilege. No matter how competent or powerful those individuals are, the risk of encountering doubt and insecurity is simply a part of living in a hearing-dominated society.

In this context, there may be situations where it seems too risky for a deaf person to be the lead, such as a deaf-hearing interpreting team. If a CDI brings forward a concern to an agency, the agency may view the deaf interpreter as the problem, choosing in the future to hire only hearing interpreters because they are perceived as safe. In addition, while being deaf in a hearing world can provide wisdom and insight, it also can be exhausting. At times, it makes sense for hearing interpreters to serve as allies in taking action. Yet, this is not a decision that hearing interpreters should make without deferring to the deaf interpreters.

Creating a Joint Plan of Action

If the team decides that the hearing interpreter is to take the lead, this should always be part of a joint plan. With the project manager, it made sense for Doug to raise the concern, but it didn’t mean that he acted on his own or that Trudy somehow ceded power to a privileged white, male, hearing interpreter. While in many respects, Trudy provided the leadership in the situation with insight into what was taking place and how to address the situation, Doug still could share his perspectives.

After an action is carried out, it is vital to evaluate the consequences. Throughout the project and even today, we continued to have conversations about the dynamics of interactions. Such a sharing of power is not something can simply be checked off a list. It is a continuing process.

Although such a process can consume energy and requires commitment, the upside is that sharing power does not have to be a zero-sum equation. Deaf people exercising their power do not diminish hearing interpreters’ power. Working together to create a plan of action that takes into account the value of deaf people’s experiences and the dynamics of a situation can be of benefit to all involved.

Beldon, in his interview, ended with an encouraging point in thinking about deaf-hearing interpreting teams:

Hearing interpreters have to help, serve as allies, and promote CDIs as team members. Share the message that it will ensure equivalent messages. It’s about deaf people’s language. Hearing interpreters can do their thing, and let the CDIs do theirs. It’s beautiful.

Deaf and hearing people working together in everyday situations to share leadership and power is just as beautiful, and well worth the energy to make it happen.


Beldon, J. (2014, Spring/Summer). Opening the door to CDI leadership. VIEWS. (no page number)

Hauser, P., O’Hearn, A., McKee, M., Steider, A., and Thew, D. (2010). Deaf epistemology: Deafhood and deafness. American Annals of the Deaf, 154(5), 486-492.

Suggs, T. (2012a, August 7). A deaf perspective: Cultural respect in sign language interpreting. Retrieved from http://www.streetleverage.com/2012/08/a-deaf-perspective- cultural-respect-in-sign-language-interpreting

Suggs, T. (2012b, December 11). Deaf disempowerment and today’s interpreter. Retrieved from http://www.streetleverage.com/2012/12/deaf-disempowerment-and-todays-interpreter

Wise, T. (2008). White like me: Reflections on race from a privileged son. Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull Press.

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Workshop: June 29, 2013 | Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter (New Jersey RID)

Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter 
New Jersey Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Eatontown, NJ

Trudy’s thoughts:

This group was one of the most attentive, open-minded and supportive groups I’ve ever worked with. I felt so welcomed, and that really helped set the tone for me. And the group was incredibly gracious about my shameful vice: Real Housewives of New Jersey. Such kind people, indeed.

This was a bit different from previous Deaf Disempowerment presentations I had done. Usually, I do a 30-minute presentation, then the participants choose whether to attend the follow-up workshop (which takes on a think-tank format) or the other workshops the conference offers. This time, I was asked to incorporate both the presentation and workshop into a two-hour format, with all conference participants present.

An interesting challenge was that the room was a good size, but not in the right direction. The room was more wide than long, so people were on either side of me–which made for some challenging sight lines at times. My neck actually hurt from having to swivel from left to right so much.  Even so, the overall experience was very positive, and I credit the audience for this. A lot of great questions were asked, and they will be used to tweak future combined presentation-and-workshop events.

Evaluation comments:

Very excellent! Great workshop! The presenters were wonderful, knowledgeable, and professional. Thank you!

Her presentation style was excellent. Truly enjoyed her explanation and teaching style.

Excellent examples. Extremely important topic!

This would be great as an all-day workshop, open and great discussion on topics, would be great to have her back to NJ for an all-day workshop.

Gave me great tools to use to keep evaluating myself, my role and my work. Thank you for highlighting areas for me to watch out…always better to do that than regret in hindsight!

Very open feelings to presentation, not judgmental but mature perspective.

Real-life examples make our own work relevant. Sometimes I ask myself, “Could this situation ever come up in a workshop?”

Fabulous – really got to the meat of the “little indignities” that Deaf people face everyday.

Fantastic! Truly will inspire more thought and discussion on topic. Thank you!!

Workshop: May 30, 2013 | Making Your Case: An Online Course in Advocacy (ADARA)

Making Your Case: An Online Course in Advocacy (presented on behalf of Commission of Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing Minnesotans)
American Deafness and Rehabilitation Association, Bloomington, MN

Trudy’s thoughts

This online courseMaking Your Case, is such a crucial resource. It is so useful for so many things, especially legislative advocacy. Best of all, the course, available in American Sign Language, text and open captions, is available to anyone at no charge. It includes inspiring stories from grassroots leaders and real-life case studies.

Typically, this workshop is anywhere from an hour to three hours and filled with activities, but ADARA had a lightning-round format for this year’s conference. This meant I had only 30 minutes to present a chunk of key information. The interpreters were fabulous, and so were the 100-plus participants. Hopefully they will bring this course back to their communities and encourage people to participate.

Evaluation comments

  • …good presentation!
  • Very energetic.  Great interaction.  Very valuable learning.  Thank you.
  • Great stuff…loads of good info quickly
  • …overall great presentation
  • Trudy was great!
  • Nicely developed training.

In Search of Interpreter Heart: Exploring Our Core Values

Come to a workshop on June 8! This is open to all, especially interpreters, allies and Deaf people.

{Click on the flyer for a larger image, or e-mail me for the original file.}


Black cloud no more?

This article originally appeared in Gallaudet University’s The Buff and Blue’s Oct. 24, 2009 issue.

When I went through my father’s things after his death, I found newspaper clippings about Gallaudet. They were mostly about the Deaf President Now (DPN) protest, but one stood out. It was from 1986, when Gallaudet College became Gallaudet University.

I was surprised that my father had even saved the article. My father, who was academically dismissed from Gallaudet in 1972, was not by any means what we would call a remarkable community leader. Rather, he was quite ordinary; he had an entry-level job with the state and rarely went to deaf events outside of town.

Yet he felt that Gallaudet’s accreditation as a university was noteworthy enough to save a clipping about. This, to me, speaks volumes about the influence of Gallaudet.

Alumni and students alike are constantly bombarded with dazzling publicity about the world’s only liberal arts university for deaf students. Recruiting materials highlight carefully selected students and alumni – each with a determined look or a sunny smile – who come from every cranny and nook of the world. It’s easy to get drawn into how great Gallaudet is and not consider the effects that the university’s antics and accomplishments have upon ordinary people like my father.

Gallaudet had such an impact upon me long before I became a student. When the DPN protest took place, I was a freshman in high school; the protest greatly influenced how hearing peers and “teachers of the hearing impaired” at my high school perceived us deaf students. Years later, I am friends with many of the DPN leaders but I still get starry-eyed around them. Although there are so many more opportunities today that we no longer perceive as remarkable like they were decades ago, I continue to be in awe of so many deaf people and their ordinary and not-so-ordinary accomplishments. This sense of awe is something I hope to never let go of ever again.

I say again because I lost that feeling once, in 2006. The outrage and deep division over the presidential selection in 2006 had been simmering for years. Despite media reports and what some people said, the anger that surfaced wasn’t an overnight thing. In fact, I remember exactly when I began feeling disillusioned about the division at Gallaudet: during my husband’s graduation in 1993.

You see, he was among the wide-eyed freshmen at Gallaudet in 1988 when DPN took place. By 1993, the last of these freshmen had graduated, taking with them the pride and sense of entitlement that DPN had instilled in deaf people everywhere. As I watched the graduation ceremony, I was sad that the DPN veterans wouldn’t be students anymore, because they were the movers and shakers then. They would call the university out on unfair situations, and constantly kept the administration on its toes – but they always made sure everything was done with a positive attitude. I was fortunate to have Mary Malzkuhn – often called the “Mother of DPN” –as my academic adviser and teacher for my government classes, which were filled with many DPN veterans. I learned so much from them and was always excited to be in their presence because they were superstars to me. Watching them march across the stage that day, I wondered if future classes would understand the sparkle that existed immediately after DPN. When I came on campus in 1991, I was blown away by how everyone was so confident about his or her roles at Gallaudet. They had the right to be there and had the right to expect nothing but the very best in communication access, in educational quality, and in respect.

By the time I graduated in 1995, there was a growing black cloud hanging over the university, a cloud of fear. The division between students and the administration was deepening at an alarming rate. I frequently saw faculty and staff being pulled in two directions. People quit or were fired. There was a lot of underground talk about the administration’s intimidation tactics. Still, I was no longer a student so I figured I didn’t need to pay much attention.

A few years later, I finally understood this intimidation firsthand. When I was the editor at Silent News, Ryan Commerson told me that the university was closing the television and film program. I assigned a writer to the story, and she contacted the administration for a statement. She got a response that essentially freaked her out, and she forwarded it to me in a panic. I read the e-mail and was astonished by the contents.

The e-mail threatened Silent News with a lawsuit if we proceeded with the story. The writer hadn’t even asked any hard-hitting questions. What had started as a somewhat dull news story was now a controversy. This was a signal that something was terribly wrong at the university, that this was a politically fueled approach by the administration. I responded and said that this was Gallaudet’s opportunity to clear up misunderstandings about the program’s closure (or as they called it, merger with another program). The administration’s response remained unchanged: that a lawsuit would be filed if we went ahead with the story.

Not one who easily backs down, I gave the go-ahead to run the story. Just as I had predicted, the lawsuit was an empty threat. But that e-mail exchange was the perfect indicator of what was to come, especially considering how an administrator involved in that e-mail exchange was at the center of the storm in 2006.

Regardless of what people felt about the 2006 protest, it was a catalyst for change, one that was and is desperately needed. Although bitterness is rampant in the blogsphere/vlogsphere, I sense that most people are ready for positive change. At least, I know I am. This positive change is part of why President Davila has been so warmly welcomed and so successful in taking care of business. More importantly, he has brought back something that was missing for too long: integrity.

Whoever the new president is – at the time of this writing, the president hadn’t been announced yet – he or she must strengthen this integrity immediately. The new president must ensure that the faculty, staff, students and alumni can see this integrity in action.  These groups must be inspired to carry the same integrity and pride in our identity, our language, and our culture.

I’m optimistic that any one of the four candidates will help dissolve the black cloud that has hung over Gallaudet for at least a decade. Having said that, it is crucial that the new president be a mover and shaker, unafraid to create an ideological change that brings back the pride we once had. For me, what will affirm that the new president is doing the job is when ordinary citizens begin saving clippings about Gallaudet’s accomplishments once again.

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Deaf Schools: TRUE-BUSINESS DEAF?—10 Years Later

Click to see full size.

Click to see full size.

This article originally appeared at i711.com.

In 1997, an article published in DeafNation Newspaper examined staff numbers at 21 residential schools in the U.S. Only three schools reported having more than 40 percent of staff—including all levels of employees, such as maintenance, administrators, dorm staff and teachers—who were deaf or hard of hearing, Ten years later, at least five schools report having broken the 50 percent mark; see chart at right.

The residential school has long played a pivotal role in the Deaf community, given its strong, deep roots in Deaf education history. With the 1817 establishment of American School for the Deaf, in Hartford, Conn., residential schools have since served as a social, educational and language source for many. In fact, it is often at such schools that deaf people are given language and meet deaf role models for the first time in their lives.

Effects of Deaf Staff
In the 1997 article, Brian Sipek, then a junior at the Illinois School for the Deaf, said, “The [hearing] staff are usually not familiar with what the student needs, being a deaf person. There are some hearing teachers, I admit, that try to be very helpful to deaf students, but it’s not the same coming from them, since they were never raised as a deaf person. They’re just not as familiar with being deaf as we are.”

Are students and communities better served through a large number of deaf employees at deaf schools? “Without question, a diverse faculty and staff impact positively on students’ motivation to achieve academically and to set their sights high,” says Texas School for the Deaf (TSD) superintendent Claire Bugen, who is hearing. “Deaf role models are part of the fabric of our educational environment.”

The positive effects of having deaf staff at residential schools are unquestionable, but most schools continue to have more hearing employees than deaf. Sipek feels this should be changed. “I still believe that there is a shortage of deaf and hard of hearing role models for these young students at the residential schools. Being a minority, deaf and hard of hearing children need role models, someone who views the world in the same way that they do, to look up to and be inspired by. “

Indiana School for the Deaf (ISD) superintendent David Geeslin, Ph.D., who is deaf, believes having deaf people on staff is a reason for ISD’s enrollment rising dramatically to 377 students within a few years. “Obviously, with deaf staff, we have a greater number of deaf role models for students, and this also leads to increased exposure to bilingualism for the students,” he says. “Deaf people can share knowledge that no college education can provide.”

Language is another benefit to having deaf staff, says Alex Slappey, Wisconsin School for the Deaf (WSD) superintendent. “Language is learned through the interchange of the language, and the richer and more diverse the language models available, the richer and more diverse the language foundation will be. It’s essential that students at WSD, an American Sign Language/English bilingual program, have the language models that both peers and adults provide. It is equally important that we have hearing staff because we are a bilingual program and provide the cultural and language models our students require to develop English language skills and an understanding of the hearing culture.”

Geeslin adds, “Even so, it’s critical that we maintain a bicultural environment where hearing staff are also equally respected and revered, especially if they’re fluent in both American Sign Language (ASL) and English and have the right attitude.”

Among the several reasons cited in the 1997 articles for having such low percentages of deaf staff were widening career choices for deaf professionals, hiring systems, pay levels, and certification procedures. These appear to continue to be challenges today.

“There are so many more professional employment opportunities today for people who are deaf and many more pre-service training and educational opportunities than there used to be. All of this is great, but it means that many capable individuals are seeking and finding challenging employment outside of the education arena,” says Joseph Finnegan, director of Conference of Educational Administrators of Schools and Programs for the Deaf (CEASD). “Also, I think that many individuals don’t see educational administrative employment as very attractive these days, especially with long hours, low pay and many headaches.” CESAD, established in 1868, provides accreditation for deaf schools, and advocacy and program services.

“The state hiring process may inadvertently discriminate against qualified deaf and hard of hearing candidates. This is less true for direct contact staff in Wisconsin, such as teachers, assistants, and dorm staff. We were successful in changing requirements for that in the early 1990s. However, it continues to be true for non-contact staff such as building/grounds and food services staff,” Slappey theorizes. “Bureaucratic certification systems are also impediments to hearing, deaf, or hard of hearing candidates, and can be rather discouraging.”

“I think there are both positives and negatives that contribute to this dilemma of a lack of deaf staff. Clearly, deaf people have many more career choices today than in the past, and with changing technology I suspect that will only continue to be a factor – that’s a good thing,” Bugen adds. “Salaries in education, on the other hand, have not kept pace with the private sector and many young people both want and need to be paid better than most educators are paid. Now with the requirements of highly qualified teaching under various laws, our already shrinking pool of qualified deaf and hearing candidates is compromised even further, which will likely cause more challenges in the years ahead.”

Geeslin is less forgiving. “Even though circumstances for gaining certification have become much stringent, the harsh truth is that we have to roll up our sleeves, whether we’re deaf or hearing or whatever our languages are, and work as much as we can to meet requirements. There’s no way around it at this point. We have to actually try and do what we can to earn our credentials, because we can. After all, we are to serve as models for students. It is time to raise the bar for ourselves and our students.”

Deaf Administrators
Currently, there are at least 14 deaf or hard of hearing superintendents in the nation, a number that fluctuates with time. “I foresee a need for more deaf administrators at deaf schools, but I think the pool of qualified candidates is smaller than it could be,” Slappey says. “Finding good administrators, whether hearing or deaf, is a problem. States are now more aware of and sensitive to the value a good deaf administrator brings to a program.”

Finnegan, a former superintendent, notes that graduate-level or professional-level training for deaf people were nonexistent for years, especially after the closure of the Leadership Training Program at California State University, Northridge, but that this is changing with the establishment of the Gallaudet Leadership Institute (GLI).

Training may be key, Bugen agrees, who also cites GLI. “Given the growing scarcity of young deaf or hearing professionals interested in education, we have to groom and grow our future leaders from within. We have to find ways to give our talented young deaf people opportunities to take on leadership roles and then encourage them to get the proper certification and training to assume administrative positions.”

“I think another challenge is that so many deaf administrators try to buck the system head-on instead of working within the system,” Dr. Geeslin states. “What helps me in my current position greatly are my years in outreach. I was out in the field, and I saw how hearing parents often didn’t care about Deaf culture. They simply wanted to find the best options for their children in acquiring spoken and/or written English. I had to come up with different ways of sharing the idea of using ASL to acquire English, and that really helped me understand the reality of working within the system in order to buck it. It’s all about mediating between the two worlds.”

New Challenges
What makes the enrollment boom that some residential schools are experiencing even more remarkable is that a Dec. 4 article in Education Week reported that only 15 percent of 72,000 K-12 deaf students attend deaf schools, down from 33 percent in 1985.

“I think there are two important elements that contribute to this success. The first is a community with a critical mass of Deaf people and a school that offers a high quality educational program. We find an increasingly large number of Deaf families moving to the Austin area so that their children can attend TSD,” Bugen says. “When this happens it not only keeps our enrollment strong, but it brings more Deaf families into the larger business and social community of Austin. Second, I believe the school must be ‘Deaf friendly’ and involve Deaf people in all aspects of the school’s operations so that Deaf people feel respected, valued and empowered.”

Serving a specific niche is another significant boost, Slappey says. “The landscape of deaf education has been changing and continues to change. Deaf schools, especially residential schools, need to decide where their focus is going to be in terms of who they will serve and how they will serve their students. WSD considers itself a niche school that serves children who require a visual language, ASL, to access education. This doesn’t mean we don’t serve the more hard of hearing child who uses English, but we do not sacrifice the needs of the ASL child to meet the needs of the English child. Deaf schools need to show how their uniqueness may make them a better placement option. To a large degree, this is an education and public relations issue. We must educate as to the unique needs, especially the communication and social emotional needs, of our deaf children.”

Even so, schools are struggling with an emergent problem: students with additional disabilities, such as autism or attention deficit disorder. According to Education Weekly, a 2005 survey indicated that 42 percent of 37,000 deaf students reported having additional disabilities. Dr. Geeslin, noting that 52 percent of ISD’s students have other disabilities, says that the lack of deaf teachers specializing in special education is a dilemma. “Now with the proliferation of students with additional needs, it’s even more crucial that deaf teachers pursue certification and experience in working with those students. The students are the ones who need the best language and cultural role models. And who knows? With earlier intervention and clear language models, it may be that those students make greater progress in acquiring both languages improving academic performance.”

Citing changes in federal and state statutes, Slappey says, “It is not a trend limited to teachers of the deaf, but part of the overall trend. To realize a true change in the supply, the teaching profession needs to be made more attractive as a career choice. Such things as better compensation, better working conditions, less bureaucracy, and less paperwork would go a long way to that extent. It’s a huge order to attempt to implement.”

‘Grow Our Own’
Despite the hurdles, Geeslin believes he has the solution to ensuring stronger roots and equality at deaf schools.

“15 years ago, I went to the National Association for the Deaf conference and ran into a friend, Lindsay Dunn. Given that I’ve always tried to look at things from outside of the box even as a teacher, I had been thinking about the lack of diversity at ISD. So I asked Lindsay how we could bring more African-Americans to the school. He said, ‘I have the answer. First, what did you do to recruit them?’ I told him that we had asked many people, but none ever applied. He then asked if we had a strong black deaf community, and I said we did not. He asked if we had any black deaf teachers. I again said we did not. He said, ‘There you have it. You have to grow your own first.'”

Profoundly affected by this revelation, Geeslin’s outlook changed. “Thanks to Lindsay, I have tried to ensure that we grow our own by encouraging staff, students and parents to invest in the community, and making sure that they understand they are investments themselves, too. We have to do this to create a community to which people of all types want to return and continue the work previous generations did. This is one reason ISD has grown so much in such a short time – because we grow our own.”

The fact that more schools have broken the 50 percent mark comes as good news to Sipek, who graduated Gallaudet University in 2004 and now works at the university. “I’m thrilled to know that there are more role models for deaf and hard of hearing children at residential schools. This closes a much-needed gap, but like most things, there is always room for more. I think this increase in staff numbers has been a long time coming.”

My thoughts:

This article first came about in 1997 when Brian Sipek asked me to see how many schools had deaf people employed at deaf schools. I agreed, and set out to collect the data. I was surprised at the amount of resistance from schools in giving me the statistics I asked for—something that was also true this time around. But I was even more surprised at the staggeringly low numbers, and how defensive some schools were about the numbers. My questions were simple: 1. How many students attend your school? 2. How many people do you employ? 3. How many of those staff members are deaf or hard of hearing?

Those who did not try to justify their low percentages were the ones who had outstanding attitudes, were upfront about this being a concern, and worked hard to change the numbers.

I am beyond thrilled to see how the numbers have grown since 1997, even if only a few have broken the 50 percent barrier. I should also point out that the numbers of deaf and hard of hearing teachers and dorm staff at many schools are quite high, and that the low numbers usually stemmed from cafeteria workers, maintenance, and administration. This is in no way an excuse; we should have deaf employees in each of these categories, too.

As Sipek commented, we still have a long way to go. Regardless of changing needs and times, we must continue to promote the increased hiring of qualified deaf people in key positions at every level. After all, paraphrasing Lindsay Dunn, it’s the only way we can grow our own.

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Why Not For Kids, Too?

rallyThis article originally appeared at i711.com.

An Alton Telegraph (Illinois) article reads in part:

Springfield, Ill. (AP) – About 100 deaf citizens carried placards and used their hands to talk at a silent rally in the State Capitol aimed at supporting legislation that would affect the deaf.

The demonstrators came from all over the state to…testify before an Illinois House committee and meet with Gov. James R. Thompson.

The Human Resources committee then voted 18 to 1 in favor of a proposal to provide communication devices for the deaf in at least one emergency facility in communities with more than 10,000 residents.

I don’t quite remember my first rally, but I do remember Mom sitting me down and talking with me about how we could make our home safer in the event of a fire or other emergencies. Back then, we were too poor to own a TTY, so we had to rely on alternate methods. The next day, a group of deaf people gathered to make signs and flyers; I colored the fireman’s hat on my sign a bright red. Then we went to the state capitol. I remember meeting with Governor Thompson in his office and being in awe of how tall and friendly he was. I was only three years old; Mom was 25. The rally and governor’s meeting were crucial lessons for me.

Today, nearly 30 years later, I continue to believe in the value of children participating in peaceful rallies and demonstrations. As a result of that early exposure – and many other rallies or demonstrations – I developed a lifelong interest in advocacy. I stay active with both state-level and national-level associations serving deaf people not because it’s a “cool” thing to do, but because it’s the only way we can ensure our rights.

There was recently some discussion recently among bloggers and vloggers about whether children should be involved in demonstrations or protests. This dialogue emerged from an incident during the A.G. Bell conference in Virginia last July. A group of people, including an A.G. Bell member, passed out flyers at the conference site promoting the teaching of sign language to deaf babies. The Marriott hotel manager, Jenny Botero, was captured on video trying to take flyers away from one of the people. Botero also grabbed paper from a frightened deaf eight-year-old daughter of a deaf woman, though this wasn’t captured on video. The girl’s mother was understandably furious. One blogger questioned the mother’s judgment and integrity in having her daughter participate, yet never once questioned Botero’s integrity. Regardless of the circumstances, no adult should ever try to intimidate an eight-year-old – or any child – into doing anything to further a cause.

When I read the blogger’s article and people’s comments agreeing that children shouldn’t be involved in events like this, I was saddened. The deaf community is now beginning to associate the word “protest” – or other forms of activism – as aggressive, dangerous and harmful. And this association has serious consequences.

I certainly don’t support dangerous tactics, regardless of results. Not all activism include dramatic events like what sometimes happened during the Gallaudet protests or even the civil rights movement of the 1960s. I should, however, point out that many of the children who were involved with the Deaf President Now protest are now adults, even parents, who have become even more cognizant of the importance of advocating for issues important to them. Many of them have become outstanding community leaders in individual ways. I was 13 when DPN happened, and the protest certainly left its mark on me. It didn’t teach me that we had to resort to violent methods. The protest taught me that deaf people like me were just like anyone else who deserved equal respect and access, and that we could play smart in order to get what we wanted, or rather, needed. It’s still that simple today.

So, to bring the kids or not? Again, it’s simple: the parent has the responsibility of gauging the safety level of each event, whether a rally, demonstration or a protest. The parent also has a responsibility in developing a safety plan should things go terribly wrong – whether at the hands of the protestors or the police or management. And the parent also has the right to decide if a child should be involved or not. Let’s be real: there’s a degree of risk in everything we do, from carrying signs at an event to riding a car (anyone want to compare the likelihood of dying in a car accident to being hurt during a demonstration?).

Besides, any responsible parent would do what my mother did: sit with the children, talk about the issues at hand in as neutral and factual a manner as possible, and then explain why the event is taking place. Then the parent could ask if the children want to be involved or not. Safety should always be a priority, but so should education and awareness.

Even though my first rally was three decades ago, I find myself advocating for the same issues we did back then, which was pre-Americans with Disabilities Act, pre-captioning, pre-Internet, and pre-everything: equality. And if it takes another 30 years of peaceful demonstrations and rallies to achieve equality, so be it. Our children should not face inequality at any time, so what better way to educate them than to include them?

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