Deaf Women Supporting Deaf Women

This article originally appeared in Get a Z Life Magazine

deafwomenWhen you put a group of women together to work, what do you get? Ask anyone this question, and you’re likely to get stereotypical responses like, “Oooh, catfight!” or “A lot of drama and backstabbing.” Is this really accurate, especially in the Deaf community? Many don’t think so.

Stereotypes

Why do such negative stereotypes persist? “I think it’s because of the already-oppressive world that women live in,” says Deaf Women United (DWU) Chair Melissa Yingst Huber of Phoenix. “For a long time, women have faced oppression, and just recently more and more women are emerging as leaders. Women have had to work harder, and in a sense, ‘fight’ to earn respect as leaders, so that is already a negative connotation in us as women, that we have to fight hard to earn the respect we deserve as leaders. It may be hard for some women to celebrate other women leaders because they are already fighting for a place for themselves in society. So it may be their first instinct to view other women leaders as competition rather than recognizing them as equally accomplished female counterparts in the world.”

 Socorro Moore of Seattle, who serves on the Council de Manos board along with the DWU board, agrees. “To collaborate and work together can be challenging because we’re dealing with people different from ourselves, and our self-interests may conflict. Women might also have fears coming from a place of unawareness, [fears of] being judged and miscommunication, and being patronized simply because they are women.”

Another factor of negative stereotypes is the expectation of women to do it all. Huber says, “Many women who have children may be expected or feel that they need to put in more time with their children, and that takes away the free time that they may have to continue with leadership commitments, activities, and so on, especially if they are working women.”
“There’s so much domestic violence going on, a lot of women have self-esteem issues where they may need support from other women without judgment,” adds Sharon White, an active National Black Deaf Advocate participant from Frankfort, Ky. “We also have to remember different backgrounds, cultures and religions. Today, things are a lot different for women in employment, especially for single moms—the list goes on. It’s sometimes frustrating and hard to get everyone together. There are many bright women out there but they may be not available to be part of the advocacy network because they have small children, and they don’t have the time to give to support groups.”

Huber, however, sees an upside to this high expectation. “The idea that many women take on many different roles can enable them to be great multitaskers, juggle different commitments, and develop skills to make significant contributions to the community.”

Lack of Support and Role Models

Another challenge is the lack of support and role models, Huber says. “In the Deaf world, where the crab theory is already imminent, that’s a double negative for Deaf women. Deaf people are already trying to make their place in a hearing-dominated world, so it makes it doubly harder for Deaf women leaders to emerge and celebrate each other.”

“I think healthy models are lacking because many of us did not have other women to look up to while growing up,” Marilyn Jean Smith of Seattle says. Smith founded the acclaimed Abused Deaf Women Advocacy Services (ADWAS) organization and has served on numerous boards, including DWU and the National Association of the Deaf. She continues, “I personally had to unlearn a lot of things, move away from the hierarchal model and go with a consensus model, which I think respects everyone’s thoughts (or tries to). Our models have been traditional male ones, which is, for the most part, about power and control.”

Huber echoes this perspective. “It has often been said that women are too emotional and sensitive. However, I feel that very element makes women great leaders. Being emotionally in tune enables women to connect with others, be more in tune with others’ emotions, understand each other more, gauge interest and reactions from other people.”

She points out that the availability of Deaf women as role models in her upbringing helped her become the confident, happy woman she is today. “I’ve always loved being a Deaf woman. My pride of being a strong Deaf woman probably comes from the fact that I had a Deaf mother who was a strong woman, never afraid to share her thoughts, and that was instilled in me at a very young age. I also had wonderful Deaf female role models growing up. That sense of pride only got stronger as I grew older.”

The Deaf community is close-knit in nature, so when the crab theory is in full force, that can become difficult to address, Smith says. “I think we go quiet most of the time when we see someone sabotaging the efforts of another or don’t confront women who tell stories about others that may not be true. Our community is certainly small and in an effort to get along with everyone, however superficial it is, this can mean we sometimes keep quiet to not rock the boat.”

Sofia Seitchik, of Global Deaf Women, says, “This pulling-down of each other takes place because of people’s mindsets and their upbringings. Many don’t realize what their beliefs are as Deaf people, which are often developed from oppression.” She continues, “They need to reexamine themselves and ask themselves questions like, ‘Is there anything I can do to shift my mindset and beliefs as a Deaf woman, to believe that we are intelligent and as capable as any other person?’ This will help them open their hearts and this can be a very powerful self-mirror. Only then can they really support other women, such as Deaf business owners.”

Deaf Business Owners

Jasmine Garcia-Freeland, who owns All That Jazz and lives in Bozeman, Mont., sees this pulling-down often. “As a second-year business owner who is a Deaf woman, I think a lot of the negativity is based on mentality.” She cites a pattern among many Deaf women who refuse to support certain Deaf businesswomen simply because of personal conflicts, rather than looking at the bigger picture of the Deaf ecosystem. “To me, it doesn’t matter if I like that person or not. It’s important that we always support each other, encourage each other, and strive for a stronger Deaf business community so that our reach can extend to the hearing community, too.”

Seitchik is a successful business and life coach working with Deaf women entrepreneurs. “In the past few years we’ve seen some of the fastest-growing numbers of Deaf-owned and woman-owned businesses, but not many of them survive. This creates unique stressors, because so many eyes are on the owners, waiting to see if they fail. There exists a norm among the Deaf community that they will wait to see if a business makes it or not before they support.” As a result, Seitchik says, deaf businesswomen have to invest time and energy in educating the community on their businesses, rather than focusing on the businesses themselves.

Seitchik also receives the same questions repeatedly in her coaching: “I get asked over and over again, ‘Will I be successful in my business? Will Deaf people support me? Do you think I can do it?’ I see so much fear in their eyes, and this pains me because this is the mindset that has been in place for many years. Most deaf people prefer to invest in hearing businesses because they mistakenly believe that hearing people know more. This is even more true for deaf women business owners, and it’s tiring and demoralizing.”

Strategies for Support

Moore believes the solution to removal of negativity can be found in ourselves. “We each have to get out of our way to help others reach their goals. This goes beyond concern for yourself and your own advancement. Don’t panic when others are happy and improving—envy, jealousy, and bitterness are a waste of time, and it’s not a great place to feel insecurity.”

Smith agrees wholeheartedly. “I have my limits with negative people. There is only so much I can do and then I need to walk away or minimize our encounters. One thing I know for sure: always respond in a positive way to negativity. It is draining work but it has to happen or you risk getting sucked in.” She suggests writing about your experiences, and having dialogue by being vulnerable and being open. She often posts her thoughts on social media, saying, “I’m amazed at how many people validate some things I post on Facebook with responses like, ‘Whew, I’m not alone. I thought I was the only one.’ We need to praise other women not just to their faces but also to others. Cherish their gifts, as you want them to cherish yours. Be a role model.”

White says, “Trying to work together and trying to find a common ground is always important. It’s best to take a negative situation and try to see the positive of it and work with that.” She adds, “We need to start offering our experiences in exchange for helping out with peer groups for women to help become more independent as well as boosting their self-esteem.” Sharing experiences to bond with others is another way women can support each other, she believes. “Provide support for them. Let them know there are resources out there. Be honest and open-minded, and provide clear communication so that things can be understood rather than misunderstood. Basically, treat deaf women the way you wish to be treated as a human being, not because we are deaf.”

Celebrating each person’s accomplishments is another step, Huber says. “Each woman has a unique story and has so much to contribute, and it’s so important to celebrate and recognize what each woman can contribute, whether big or small. When women are recognized and celebrated, this inspires other women, creating a ripple effect.”

Although there are many who continue to believe in traditional roles and expectations for women, Huber has hope. “The optimist in me has already seen so much positive change in today’s society where people are becoming more accepting and aware of everyone’s differences, respecting everyone’s backgrounds. There are only more good things to come, which will include more acceptance, celebration, and respect for women. Not only the concept of womanhood, but also the full picture of each woman, all the different layers in each woman, and the different intersectionalities of each.”

Garcia-Freeland adds, “It’s so important to socialize with women from all walks of life, because this is the reality of the world. It’s diverse, and I want to work well with others. I can accomplish this because I value each person’s experiences and stories, regardless of whether we have mutual friends or not.”

“I am aware that we Deaf women may have to work harder and prove ourselves, but that’s okay with me, because I know that we Deaf women are fully capable of accomplishing many wonderful things. I would not change a thing, especially with the plethora of Deaf female organizations out there and all the opportunities for Deaf women out there,” Huber says. “There’s always magic when you put together a group of women, because they’re able to influence each other and inspire each other in positive ways.”

Dreaming about a wolf and a pumpkin

Mom&Baby Magazine, Spring 2009As I sat in the waiting room at the doctor’s office today, I picked up the Spring 2009 issue of Mom&Baby, a magazine published by FitPregnancy. I flipped through it without too much thought until I came across Dr. Michael Cohen’s advice column.

A question was asked: “What do you think about teaching babies sign language? Is it worth the time and trouble?” As the Deaf mother to two Deaf children, I eagerly read on to see how Dr. Cohen responded. He wrote:

Teaching your baby signs before he can talk is a fun thing for some parents to do, but I think its benefits are limited in scope. What’s more, it may even have some drawbacks.

Proponents say teaching a baby to sign helps him communicate before he can talk and that this prevents frustration and resulting tantrums. But I believe that signing may actually delay a child’s ability to deal with frustration. Basically, a baby will naturally begin to talk when he becomes irritated enough by not being able to speak. Learning sign language may act as a distraction but will not get at the root of frustration. Also, once a baby is able to sign, he is actually able to speak, too – so why not let him go directly to speaking?

In my practice, I also see delays in talking among some babies whose parents practice signing with them. The parents’ enthusiasm actually reinforces the babies’ not talking. This is not a very big deal, however-eventually, they all learn to talk.

The bottom line, in my opinion: If signing with your baby is a fun activity for both of you, do it. But think of it as a game-that’s its main value. It won’t do any real harm, but it won’t work any miracles, either.

I was so disappointed to see his nonchalant, almost negative, response to this. In particular, what bothered me were these words: “…think of it as a game” and “…delay a child’s ability to deal with frustration.”

My daughter, now 20 months old, had a vocabulary of over 100 words by the time she was 12 months old. Today, her vocabulary is well over 200 words – actually, we’ve stopped counting because it’s not about numbers for us, and because there are simply too many words she knows. Rather, it’s about what she says and her ability to express complex, abstract thoughts. She also started signing in sentences well before she was one year old. This is important, because children generally can’t speak (as in vocally) full sentences at that age. In fact, many publications state that the average spoken vocabulary of a one-year-old is between one and three words. See why I swear by the value of sign language?

Let me share an example of my daily interactions with my daughter (my son is only three months old, so he’s not quite signing yet). Yesterday, I bought her a Sesame Street “Look and Find” book. One of the pages had a picture of a wolf and a pumpkin. I showed my daughter the sign for “wolf” (she already knew “pumpkin”) then moved onto the other pages without further ado.

This morning, when I greeted her in her crib, she excitedly signed, “WOLF PUMPKIN WOLF PUMPKIN!” Once out of the crib, she ran to the book, pointed to the wolf, and signed, “DREAM WOLF PUMPKIN DREAM.” She was saying she’d dreamed about that wolf. I’m not sure she fully understands what “dream” means, but she knows the word because she saw a picture of the Cookie Monster dreaming about cookies.  (Think maybe she’s a fan of Sesame Street? Yeah.)

That, to me, shows how babies and toddlers can use sign language to express abstract thoughts. We don’t always realize children have the ability to understand abstract concepts – because they usually can’t tell us. I tire of how people think children who sign have no language, and that the children are simply making “cute” gestures or pictures. Sit with my daughter for 30 minutes, and you will walk away happily exhausted because she talks non-stop, just like her mama, grandmother and great-grandmother. I dare anyone to say that sign language for my children is a “distraction,” like Dr. Cohen claims.

Simply put: sign language is not an obstacle to speech or language development. In fact, the opposite has been found to be true. American Sign Language (ASL) is a stand-alone language, and studies consistently show that ASL actually helps the development of speech and English. Research also shows that babies begin to express themselves in gestures early on, babbling, and that it reduces frustration. That’s probably why baby sign language has become so popular – not because it’s a trend, not because it’s a cute thing to learn, and not because it’s “a game.”  Rather, it’s popular because it works for so many families and children.

“But Dr. Cohen is talking about hearing children,” you may say. True. Still, once again, studies have shown that babies who learn sign language prior to speech development generally use signs to accelerate their English acquisition. Just ask hearing people who have deaf parents and learned ASL before they learned to speak. More often than not, their language skills are superior – and they speak just fine. ASL is hardly a game to the millions of families who use it for daily communication, and to call it such not only promotes a negative attitude, but is offensive to families like mine.

Even with Dr. Cohen’s disclaimer that he was merely sharing his opinion, he should have read up on existent literature showing the enormous benefits of children learning sign language, deaf or hearing. As a medical professional, his opinion carries weight, and so he has an obligation to share accurate, well-researched information. It disheartens me to think of the impact of Dr. Cohen’s opinion on the magazine’s 500,000 readers.

Perhaps I should send Dr. Cohen a tape of my daughter signing and see if he thinks signing is really a game rather than a bona fide language. Heck, my daughter can even tell him about her dreams starring Count von Count, Cookie Monster, Elmo and Oscar.

If you disagree with Dr. Cohen’s perspectives, drop him a line at babybasics@fitpregnancy.com.

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Start 2009 with hope.

There’s a lot of buzz in the media about how nonprofits are struggling financially because donations have decreased – way decreased. This translates, of course, to fewer services provided by nonprofits – which has affected organizations in the deaf community, some to extremes.

So, I figured I’d help start 2009 with hope, and get the word out about some of the charities/nonprofit organizations that I think are just great. In no particular order, I’m keeping a close eye on five causes this year, and I hope to support each in some way. Maybe you can do the same.

Discovering Deaf Worlds: I’ve worked with Discovering Deaf Worlds (www.discoveringdeafworlds.com) the past year on their newsletter, and I have been nothing but astounded by the incredible stories from this non-profit organization. Discovering Deaf Worlds founders Dave Justice and Christy Smith have gone off – way off – the beaten path and discovered so many unexplored corners of the world. By doing so, they’re bringing about awareness not only for people like me, but also for people in those corners who have no idea of their opportunities as deaf individuals. Justice and Smith are giving us all hope for a future.

Domestic violence programs: As a childhood domestic violence survivor, I really wish programs like Abused Deaf Women Advocacy Services (www.adwas.org) and Deaf Hope (www.deaf-hope.org) existed when I was a little girl. It’s only by sheer determination that Mom and I got out of the situation we were in. Two years after we left, at the age of 10, I watched The Burning Bed starring Farrah Fawcett, sobbing because it was the first time I had ever understood  the hell we went through. The movie also made me realize, for the first time in my life, that everything that had happened wasn’t our fault and that we weren’t alone.

Even today, 25 years later, thousands of deaf women and men find themselves in dangerous situations – and not so many are as lucky as Mom and I were. We got out. And so many don’t. Domestic violence survivors – and victims – are often the most ordinary people – like me – who you’d never guess were in such situations. Even today, people gasp when they learn what my mother and I had to live with for a decade.

Support  domestic violence agencies, locally and nationally, that serve deaf people. You might just help spare a child’s life.

Global Reach Out Initiative
: A young organization, Global Reach Out (GRO) is going places – figuratively and literally. As its website (www.globalreachout.org) states, GRO “seeks to serve as a launching pad for the world’s young deaf role models to work together, learn from one another, and inspire others.” GRO accomplishes this by encouraging deaf youth to come together in a delegation and address social issues limiting deaf populations’ opportunities to grow.

GRO also says, “We believe in the domino effect: if one delegate is inspired to work towards social change, many more will follow. Inspiration is contagious!” Indeed.

National Association of the Deaf:  I’ve been a long-time member – and yes, a long-time critic – of the National Association of the Deaf (www.nad.org). But it wasn’t until I served on the board for just over a year that I appreciated fully how much work is put into the NAD. As the oldest civil rights organization for deaf people in the United States, the NAD is a powerful advocacy and lobbying machine, despite what naysayers have said and will say. Give the NAD a couple of dollars. Even a buck goes a long way. Better yet, join as a member.

Rescue programs or shelters caring for deaf animals: Having had two deaf dogs, I can’t emphasize enough how crucial it is to rescue deaf animals, whether dogs, cats or others. Thousands of deaf animals are abandoned and killed each year simply because they’re deaf – and this tugs at my heart in so many ways. Their experiences, and fate, are so similar to our experiences as a deaf community. Besides, who better to understand deaf pets than deaf people?

One such program is at Deaf Animal Row (deafanimalrow.blogspot.com). Contact your local shelter or rescue program and see if they have deaf animals needing homes or support. Then share what you can, whether it’s a blanket, treats, money, or best of all, a home.

We have a new president elected on a platform of change and hope. Let’s be part of his platform and help change this world a little at a time and give  people – or animals –  hope.

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Anyone need some change?

I have a small but nice chunk of change that I want to donate to Gallaudet University. Given how the university has bombarded my family with literature begging for donations the past few years, I assumed they’d jump at the chance for some money.

Yeah, you’d think.

Instead, I’ve been given the runaround for over a year (yup, you read that right) trying to get someone, anyone, at the university to take my money.

Since 2007, I’ve been traveling the nation on a speaking tour, sharing for the first time the documents involved with the expose I did on Holly Daniel. At each of the presentations, I announced that a portion of my earnings would be donated to Gallaudet University. Specifically, I wanted to donate it to the Deaf Studies program.

Prior to the tour, I contacted the appropriate individuals at the university. They were each very interested, and the development office asked me to fill out a donation form. Another individual and I planned a videophone meeting; that never took place because of delays on her part. After continued attempts to get this scholarship set up for over a year with almost no results, I decided that I would stop expending my energy on what seemed a fruitless endeavor.

Around the same time I made this decision, I attended the Gallaudet University Alumni Association Charter Day festivities. I happened to informally meet with a new development office representative. I expressed interest in perhaps redirecting my donation to the university’s new museum fund. She reassured me she would look into this right away. That was last April.

Today, I’m still waiting for somebody, anyone, to take my donation. I wrote a letter to Gallaudet and sent a copy to President Bob Davila’s office. To date, I have not received a response or acknowledgment.

Gallaudet University has expressed concerns both privately and publicly about its dwindling number of donations; some people have pointed to the 2006 protests as a possible cause. Based on my struggles in trying to give my money to the university, it seems to me that the cause is painfully clear: they don’t respond to actual donation offers from people they consider unimportant – like me.

Maybe they think the amount I want to donate is too small. It’s not $20,000, but it’s not $500, either. Yet beggars can’t be choosers. Take a story my friend shared. He worked for a museum in the development office, and there was a woman who donated “only” $10 each year for many years. One year, she suddenly decided to donate $25,000. The lesson here is it doesn’t matter what the amount is. Each donor must be treated equally, whether it’s $10, $1,000 or millions of dollars.

I’ve been asked why I don’t donate the money to the National Association of the Deaf (NAD). Here’s why: when I wrote the Daniel story in 1997, NAD was steadfast in its refusal to lend my story any support. I asked the organization time after time for a comment or support, but never succeeded. After the story hit the national media – it was the focus of a popular Chicago Tribune column twice, appeared in the New York Times, and had a front-page mention in Advertising Age – NAD suddenly expressed interest. Perhaps it’s because NAD didn’t want to alienate potential advertisement income. Whatever the reason, it wouldn’t be right for me to donate this specific money to them. Never mind that NAD is near and dear to my heart today.

So, I’m trying to figure out what to do with this money. Perhaps my company should set up a one-time scholarship fund so I can give away this money. Or perhaps I should simply donate it to a local deaf organization. I don’t know.

Anyone need some change?

Update (Sept. 26)
I am truly impressed. Only hours after this entry was published, I received a call from Paul Drehoff, the vice president of institutional advancement at Gallaudet University. He’s new to the university, and among his responsibilities is the oversight of the development office.  He left a sincere apology on my videomail, and I e-mailed him in response.

He replied with another apology, and we set up a time to talk on the phone today at noon. Today, he called at noon sharp, and accompanying him was the development office’s Doris Parent. After some small talk, we quickly and easily worked out the arrangements for my donation to the university’s new museum fund.

I was quite pleased with Mr. Drehoff’s sincerity and eagerness to get things done. What impressed me even more was that Mr. Drehoff didn’t try to excuse anyone’s behavior. He said what happened should have not happened, and he’s right.

There’s hope yet for the university.

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Making Money…at Our Expense

This article originally appeared at i711.com.

If there’s one thing that bugs me, it’s when companies that become successful by selling to the deaf community don’t support the community. By that, I mean when they don’t hire deaf people, sponsor deaf events, donate to deaf organizations, or try to become involved in the community somehow.

Back in high school, there was a local business that specialized in visual alert systems, TTYs, and so on. The owner, a hearing woman, was upset when she learned her son and I “liked” each other. I initially had no idea of the son’s ties to this company; I simply knew he was a guy from my gym class. His mother told him not to date a deaf girl, and she was cold toward me the two times I came to their house.

Anyway, this business was notorious for hiring deaf employees then firing them for whatever convenient reason. Mind you, the employees weren’t “problem employees” – they were high-caliber, extremely qualified folks. The owner just didn’t like them, probably because she couldn’t sign very well, and because the deaf employees had a better standing in the deaf community.

The business quickly gained a reputation for being “anti-deaf.” My stepdad told me of how he stopped by once to pick up a phone signaler. He walked in, and none of the employees could communicate with him. At this point, the employees were all hearing, unless you count the owner’s husband who became deaf later in life. My stepdad never went back; I didn’t, either. The company received hefty recognition from local businesses inspired by how the company “helped deaf people have a chance at life.” Still, area deaf folks knew how hypocritical the company was.

Today the company is a huge success, thanks to a shift in focus from deaf-related products to disability-related products. And the employees? Beats me, but I’d bet none of the employees are deaf or have disabilities.

Companies like this are a dime a dozen. Business opportunists see the millions of deaf and hard of hearing Americans, and think, “Heeeey, easy money!” They come up with all sorts of strategies and schemes to sell things to us. And that’s perfectly fine; this is a capitalist nation, after all.

Yet these companies don’t hire deaf folks. Apparently we’re good enough to sell to, but not good enough to hire.

Whenever I check a vendor out, I see if the owner is deaf or at least has direct ties to the deaf community. If not, then I look at how many deaf employees are at the company. I even call and ask: “How many people do you have working for you who are deaf?” I always get a kick out of their spin-doctored responses: “Well, uh, may I ask who’s calling? I see, well…we don’t have any currently, but we make attempts to reach out to…” Et cetera.

I also check to see if the organization has sponsored events, organizations or services in the community. After all, being socially responsible business owners is a big deal nowadays. If companies work with ethnic groups, they hire ethnic individuals. They want to qualify for specific contracts or to be a ‘feel-good’ company, they hire people with disabilities. If they work with deaf people, they hire hearing people who can barely sign. Waiiiiitamin… what’s wrong with this picture?

All sarcasm aside, to be a company that’s socially responsible within the deaf community, have at least an equal number of deaf and hearing employees, or even a majority of deaf employees.

I don’t care if companies make money off us deaf folks, as long as they hire deaf employees, sponsor community events, and do as much as they can to empower us. Take from us if they must, but they gotta give back to us, too.

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Will Work for Food

This article originally appeared at i711.com.

Last week, I learned that a friend applied at Lowe’s to earn some extra cash. This guy is one of the most experienced carpenters around who knows every tool on the market, pays incredible attention to detail, and is probably Lowe’s dream customer (and worker, I would think). Yet, when he applied, he was told he didn’t qualify. Was it because he isn’t quite fluent in English? Or was it because he’s deaf? I don’t know.

I doubt it’s because of the English thing, because there are several non-English speakers working at the store. My friend thinks it’s because he’s deaf and doesn’t speak. As much as I hate to admit it, he’s probably right. Mind you, there’s another deaf employee at the store; however, she speaks fluent English and can hear somewhat. In fact, when my husband and I went to Lowe’s last December to order a new shower glass door, an employee told us to hold on, but we didn’t know why. We learned later that the worker ran to the other side of the store and brought the deaf employee over to interpret for us. We really didn’t need an interpreter, so we said hi to the deaf woman (who we knew) and told the hearing worker we preferred to write back and forth. The deaf employee was visibly relieved when we said we preferred to write back and forth.

My friend’s situation made me think back to when I applied at Borders many years ago. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a major, major bookworm. I haven’t ever been without a book since I began reading as a tot. You’d think I was a perfect candidate to work at a bookstore.

Apparently not. I filled out an application, and got an e-mail from the store manager saying my application made me “a perfect employee,” and that she’d love to interview me. When I went in and finally revealed that I was deaf, her face visibly dropped. I knew right there and then I wouldn’t get the job. Should I have requested an interpreter, implying that I needed “help” at a cost to the store? Or should I have said upfront that I was deaf and maybe not even land an interview?

The manager asked how I would deal with customers who didn’t know sign language. I didn’t bother pointing out the inappropriateness of this question, because I wanted the job and didn’t want to rock the boat. I explained that I had retail experience, shared some solutions to this, and all the other right things to say.

Just as I predicted, I didn’t get the job, although I never was given a straight answer about why. No, I didn’t do anything about it. I figured if they wouldn’t hire me based on this simple fact, then I didn’t want to work there. Sure, I could have taken this opportunity to try and educate people, blah, blah, blah, but I didn’t have the time nor energy. Besides, if I had filed a complaint, she could’ve easily said I was overqualified or any number of reasons. But I knew, deep inside, the real reason, even though I hated to admit it. Still, I had to pick my battles, and this wasn’t one of them.

Back to my friend who wasn’t hired at Lowe’s: he didn’t know what resources he had, and asked my husband and me for some input. I did some sleuthing and found that Minnesota has the Deaf2Work program, working closely with Home Depot. I also referred my friend to a couple of state resources/contacts, and hopefully this situation will be taken care of.

There are programs, laws and options in place, and we need to be aware of them. But even with those resources, it’s dreadful to wonder, “Was it because I really wasn’t qualified, or was it because I’m deaf?” Nobody should have to wonder that. Ever.

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Real People, Real Cars: A Look Back

This article originally appeared at i711.com.

It was ten years ago this month that one of the strangest stories I’ve ever worked on began to unravel.

In late 1996, Saturn, the car company, was in the midst of its “Real People, Real Cars” advertising campaign. This ad campaign featured actual car owners who were not actors. One night, my then-boyfriend (now husband) and I were watching a taped show when we saw Holly Daniel in the commercial. As we watched it, my stomach churned. The commercial featured Daniel, wearing a white shirt and blue denim jumper, standing in a picturesque environment with her Saturn car behind her. She signed, with subtitles appearing onscreen:

My name is Holly Daniel
and wherever I go,
people ask me about my Saturn.

But it takes too long
to spell out S-A-T-U-R-N,
so I made my own sign
“Saturn!”
(shows her made-up sign)

That way I have more time
to drive.
Ha. Ha. Ha. (
fingerspells ha-ha-ha)

The Saturn SLI $11,995

I had a gut feeling that Daniel, of St. Francisville, La., was not deaf. Her signing gave her away, although I did wonder if she was maybe deaf and had learned American Sign Language (ASL) later in life. I decided to check my facts before I assumed anything or offended anyone.

I called Saturn the next day and spoke with a representative, who assured me Daniel was deaf, and that she wasn’t an actress. That’s when I learned that the ad campaign featured actual Saturn owners. Fine, okay. The issue, for me, shifted to her invented sign. I was increasingly frustrated by the proliferation of commercials inaccurately portraying ASL, and I didn’t like that she had “invented” a sign without gaining community approval. I decided to send a letter to Saturn.

Next, I sent an e-mail to relatives and friends, encouraging them to write or call Saturn. One of the people I e-mailed was the managing editor of DeafNation Newspaper. He mistakenly thought it was a letter to the editor, and printed it in the next issue. I got a few responses, but nothing could beat the e-mail from a deaf Louisiana man, who insisted that Daniel was actually a hearing (uncertified) interpreter at a school and had been his interpreter in college.

Suddenly, everything changed, and I began one of the most bizarre journeys of my writing career. Until that point, I had read articles here and there about Daniel, who never once said she was hearing. Two weeks later, I had at least six sources, including a pastor, who said Daniel was hearing.

I contacted Daniel, who insisted people were confusing her with a twin sister named Helen. I asked for a picture of them together that I could run with my article, and she said she had lost everything in a fire. I then asked if she could send me a copy of her birth certificate, and she did. Both Helen’s and her certificates were absolutely identical, except for the names. Even the signatures were dotted and crossed in the same spots. A friend who worked at a police department ran the certificates for me and confirmed that there was only a single birth.

Saturn, throughout this entire investigation, kept hanging up on me. What bothered me the most, other than Daniel’s lies, was that she earned thousands of dollars for this ad (one source says $75,000). Had she been an actress, I’d have been less disgruntled. Since the ad campaign featured “real” people, and Daniel was lying, I knew I had to get to the bottom of this mystery.

I talked with Daniel several times on the phone and via Instant Messenger. One day, I got a call from a reporter at the Baton Rouge Advocate. That morning, he had met with Daniel, who said she “had no idea why anyone thought she was deaf.” Never mind all the evidence I had where she said she was deaf, and the many articles printed by other publications about her being deaf. Meanwhile, my conversations with Daniel became more and more bizarre. There was one night where she said she had “talked with God” and would come forward to apologize to the Deaf community the next day.

In late spring, I got news that Saturn finally pulled the ad. The advertising executive called me, eating crow. What was even more odd is that after I did the three articles on this, I learned that Daniel had pretended to be deaf on many occasions as far back as two years prior to being invited to do the Saturn ad. Make what you will of that.

I’ve written a book about this, but it’s not published yet. I’m sharing this story at state conferences, interpreting programs and schools across the nation this year, for a very basic reason: we can’t let this fraud happen ever again. Besides, with all the recent vlogs and blogs, the emergence of the concept of Deafhood, and the Gallaudet protests, it’s a fantastic time for us to re-examine our community values.

And the question everyone asks: whatever happened to Holly Daniel? For the answer, you’ll have to read the book or come to my presentation.

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In Loco Parentis

This article originally appeared at i711.com.

When I was a day student at the Illinois School for the Deaf (ISD) in 1985, I usually went to the dorms at lunchtime and after school for extracurricular and dorm activities. Although the socialization was always fun, there was one deciding factor for whether we kids would have a good time or not: whoever was on duty.

Whenever we had Mrs. G as our houseparent, we’d groan. Mrs. G, who was hearing, required that, when we ate meals, we keep our non-dominant hand in our laps at all times, with the other devoted to using utensils. We could use the non-dominant hand only for cutting meat. At any other time during the meal, we were to remain completely silent. If we even as much lifted our non-dominant hands, our meals were taken away. Each meal was always somber, although we – of course! – developed a system of communicating with our eyes and faces.

And let’s not forget Mrs. P, another hearing houseparent who used to sit in the dorm lounge smoking Virginia Slim after Virginia Slim as she watched Days of Our Lives. It was the only captioned soap opera at that time, so we all watched it with her. Neither woman could understand what we signed most of the time.

I don’t remember any of the hearing dorm staff with too much fondness, but I do remember the deaf ones with great respect and admiration – perhaps because they could communicate easily. My favorite was Jean, who was tall, beautiful and kind-hearted. An ISD graduate, she knew exactly what we all wanted and needed as young middle schoolers, and was always up for good girl talk with us.

Houseparents are such an integral part of any residential school, and this is something should be appreciated on a grander scale by many. Let’s face it – living in dorms at deaf schools has gotten a bad rap over the years (and in some cases, deservedly so), and so has the choice to become a dorm staffer. It always makes my heart ache when I see people saying, “S/he works as a houseparent. What a waste of college education!” or make fun of the profession. The truth is that dorm staff hold often-unrecognized major influence upon students’ lives and in the long run, the Deaf community. It doesn’t matter if the dorm staffers are deaf or hearing; they create an impact, and this is something that should be taken seriously.

My husband spent the majority of his school years living in dorms, something he remembers with great pleasure. Even though he had deaf parents and grandparents who were wonderful presences in his life, the dorm parents he grew up with also provided great impact upon his life. Sure, there are incidents in dorms that should never happen – bullying or sexual abuse, for example. But these are incidents that are absolutely preventable, and a good residential program with qualified staff who can prevent that from happening. For me, the key to a good residential program is having staff who can communicate effortlessly with students and understand the immense responsibilities of the work before them.

Being a dorm parent, to me, is a noble job and a daunting assignment to take on, one I would probably not be able to accept. Dorm staffers work in loco parentis – in place of parents – and in many cases, are the only signing adults other than teachers that the children interact with. Many children come from homes where there is minimal, if any, communication, This is the most important job task: teaching language, social skills, life values and world knowledge outside of the classroom to these children. People who work as dorm staff, hearing or deaf, must take every measure necessary to give full communication access to the kids.

Whenever I talk to deaf people who lived in dorms, they often can tell me who the worst and best houseparents were. Typically, the “awful” houseparents were the ones who couldn’t sign worth anything or sat around doing nothing. This is probably true at any boarding program around the nation, actually; it’s not just a “deaf school thing.” But still, within the close-knit Deaf community, this has far-reaching consequences.

In fact, it’s interesting how I can quickly tell who the enthusiastic and involved dorm staff are simply by going to football or basketball games at the deaf school here. The “good houseparents” – who are well-liked and strict but fair – usually attend the games, make sure their students interact and participate in a safe environment, and are fluent signers.

Being a houseparent is no easy task, and I really wish schools would set higher standards for residential staff, especially in the areas of fluency in American Sign Language and providing a productive, caring and educational environment. Raising this bar can only begin with the Deaf community’s heightened respect for people who choose to work as residential staff, increased expectations and an innate understanding of what the profession involves. We have to keep in mind that these residential staffers are helping raise our future community leaders, and do what we can to support their work.

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Matt Daigle: Father, Artist Wins Logo Contest

This article originally appeared at www.deafprofessional.net.

Ask Matt Daigle what he does, and he immediately answers, “I’m a stay-at-home dad to my one-year-old son Hayden.” He’s also a freelance cartoonist, illustrator and graphic designer, but it’s his role as a father that he’s most proud of.

So it isn’t a surprise that Daigle’s design won a breastfeeding symbol contest for Mothering, a natural family living magazine. The magazine’s website reports, “The purpose of an international symbol for breastfeeding is to increase public awareness of breastfeeding, to provide an alternative to the use of a baby bottle image to designate baby friendly areas in public, and to mark breastfeeding friendly facilities.” Daigle’s entry beat out 500 other entries, and is now the international symbol for breastfeeding. The public domain symbol will be used on signage in various places, such as the airport, to let parents know that they may breastfeed at these locations.

“I submitted an entry in July after a friend told me of the contest. The contest ended in August, then the top 12 finalists were chosen in October,” Daigle, who is deaf, says. Preliminary voting took place during the subsequent weeks, and in early November, Daigle learned he was among the top three. Website voters and breastfeeding organizations from around the world voted on the three logos. “On Nov. 13, I was notified that I had won the contest. It was a tremendous honor,” he says.

“There’s a new culture. Here in America, there often are no provisions for mothers with babies, and we need to provide that accessibility. We’re becoming more modern, more understanding of health issues, families, values and so on. I think it’s a really important icon that Mothering brought up. They’ll be promoting it to airports, and there’s already been a lot of interest from different places. It’s an exciting step for both me professionally, and for families everywhere,” Daigle says. “It’s also cool because if the symbol is indeed adopted worldwide, then you can go places and see a sign with the symbol I designed, and know that a deaf guy did that. It’s such a kick for me.”

Having grown up with a stay-at-home mother, Daigle knew firsthand the impact of a stay-at-home parent upon a child. “About three months after Hayden had been in day care, we realized we wanted to have him spend his first years at home. I wanted to give Hayden personal attention and have that bond with him.” He adds, “Even though I worked at a nonprofit agency, the agency was large enough that it had a corporate feel. That was fine, but I made the bold decision of quitting my job in January to stay home with Hayden, which wasn’t what the company wanted to hear. But it all worked out wonderfully for us.”

Daigle planned to focus solely on taking care of his new child, but people began contacting him to do small projects. Even though he still works part-time as a designer now, he says it’s challenging at times. “You have to be flexible. Like last night, I was going to do a project, but had to postpone it because of Hayden,” Daigle explains. “It’s really nice, because most of the people I work with are very flexible, which is very different from a corporate environment. There are pros and cons to that. I like deadlines, because they help me finish projects rather than putting them off, but at the same time, it’s a challenge with a child around.”

Although Daigle works mostly with graphic design, his passion lies in cartoons and illustration. “I grew up in a world of comics. Being an Army brat, I moved a lot as a child, so my parents often bought me comics, and my inspiration comes from that.” In fact, Daigle was so good at drawing that he was chosen as one of the top three cartoonists for high school newspapers in Texas. He continues, “But that kind of faded away when I was in college. I had no role models back then, so I didn’t really think illustration was a big deal until I developed my skills further. Then I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I was meant to be a cartoonist.’ So I’ve continued perfecting my skills in that.” He draws mostly cartoons related to Deaf culture but also draws about a variety of topics.

“It’s my goal to become a professional cartoonist, and I also really want to create a book filled with my cartoons, but it’s tough. I have to find sponsors, I have to find the market, and I have to prioritize,” he adds. “I network with many cartoonists who are hearing, and they have been fantastic resources. There’s also only one newspaper, SIGNews, that publishes deaf-related cartoons such as mine, so the market is very limited. I’m trying to branch out to mainstream publications.”

Daigle has straightforward advice for others wanting to become illustrators or designers. “Network. You have to network. You can’t be isolated, because it’s about who you know. That’s how I got where I am – through word of mouth, and my portfolio. And you have to grab opportunities. If I didn’t network, I wouldn’t have entered the breastfeeding logo contest. The contest is a great way for me to prove that I’m different from other graphic designers in that I have my own niche and experience. So networking is key.” He also adds that staying updated with technology is key for graphic designers, something he admits is difficult sometimes as a stay-at-home parent. “But I do what I can,” he smiles.

“What I like in my career is the creative flow. There are so many different ideas that never stop coming. There are a variety of projects, like the contest, and I do different work every day. That’s what I like, the mental stimulation. I also get to learn fun things while I’m working.”

Daigle’s websites are at www.mattdaigle.com and www.mdaigletoons.com .

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Politicians Rolling Eyes at Democracy

This article originally appeared at i711.com.

A group of disabled people filed a civil lawsuit, citing the state Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act, on Nov. 22 against the Massachusetts House and Senate leaders for failing to provide access to State House events. Among the litigants are three deaf community leaders: John Pirone, Louis Rivas, and David DelPizzo.

Part of the lawsuit asks for increased interpreter availability, closed captioned House and Senate proceedings on a local channel, awareness, and some financial compensation. Although the lawsuit includes problems experienced by individuals with other types of disabilities, I’m more interested in what the deaf plaintiffs dealt with.

In March 2006, Pirone, the executive director of the Massachusetts State Association of the Deaf (MSAD), attended a hearing about the provision of CapTel services. Even though he had been told that an interpreter and CART services would be available, Pirone arrived to find only the captioner there. John could keep up with what was said thanks to CART, but couldn’t voice for himself in spoken English without the interpreter. During the meeting, the legislators asked Pirone to make a few comments, but he couldn’t without the voice interpreters. To add insult to injury, the captions were shown only on a laptop screen, forcing the people there to crowd around the laptop to read the proceedings.

The lawsuit states, “It was important to plaintiff Pirone personally, and in his representative capacity as Executive Director of the Massachusetts State Association for the Deaf, to voice the concerns and interests of the members of his organization and to communicate what transpired at the hearing to his members.” It also stated, “The lack of provision of communication auxiliary aids at the hearing… prevented plaintiff Pirone from fulfilling his goals and responsibilities of testifying before the Committee, responding to questions from the Committee members, and communicating what transpired at the hearing to his constituents…”

Having to stand up and not being able to even say, “I can’t voice for myself because I don’t have an interpreter,” is embarrassing enough. But there’s more.

A Dec. 6 Massachusetts State House News Service article reported that lawmakers “rolled their eyes when asked about the March hearing of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utility and Energy, when John Pirone, the deaf director of the Massachusetts State Association of the Deaf, could not respond to questions or relay to his constituents what happened.”

Rolled their eyes?

The article also said that legislators have been ordered not to speak about this case, noting, “The counsels of both chambers told members and aides in a Nov. 29 email, obtained by the News Service, that they believed the suit was ‘groundless,’ but asked them to check in with the lawyers’ offices before ‘communicating’ with the litigants or their advocates.”

Groundless? Really?

The other deaf plaintiffs, DelPizzo and Rivas, repeatedly requested interpreters for an April 2006 budget hearing for the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (MCDHH), and were under the belief that interpreters would be provided. But when they arrived – does this sound familiar yet? – there were none. The lawsuit lists many other situations where accommodations were not provided, even with advance requests.

Did I also mention that this continued failure to provide interpreters had been going on for 20 months at least? Yes. 20 months.

The deaf litigants met with leaders at the House and Senate to discuss various accessibility solutions, but nothing allegedly was put in action for 20 months. I don’t agree that litigation is always the best step to take, but sometimes a lawsuit is the only way to get a situation resolved.

Currently, there is no formal procedure in the Massachusetts legislative system for communication accessibility. The article, written by Jim O’Sullivan, also reported that Senate President Robert Travaglini was “surprised” by the lawsuit, adding that he said, “We’ve tried to demonstrate that we were serious about recognizing our responsibility to remedy those conditions, and we’re doing the best we can.”

How interesting. The right to be part of a democracy is at the very crux of the U.S. Constitution. To roll their eyes when someone asks for this right is not “doing the best” they can, nor is denying people, deaf or hearing, full access to participation in the political process.

The legal complaint may be viewed by visiting www.dpcma.org, clicking on Accessibility/Civil Rights Compliance, then clicking on Download Accessibility/Civil Rights Compliance Documents.

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