by Irene Schmalz
I am the Liaison to the Deaf/Hard of Hearing at the Center for Family Involvement. My primary focus is to help parents who just found out their child has failed the newborn hearing screening and/or received the diagnosis of a hearing loss. As part of our project, we have 1-3-6 Family Educators who support families and help spread information about the importance of following up after the diagnosis. The 1-3-6 Family Educators work in their own communities and share information to the pediatric offices, audiology offices and hospital. Recently, as part of another project, we have started a new group with the Department of Health called Learning Communities. The Learning Communities gather every 3 to 4 months. At these meetings, we collaborate with hearing loss professionals and parents on how we can better serve children with hearing losses.
I share these exciting programs with you now to mark National Deaf History month, which spans from March 13th to April 15th. Why does this celebration occur between two months? There were three events that were significant during these times:
March 13, 1988, I. King Jordan was named the first deaf President of Gallaudet University. (Incidentally, on September 30, 2016, Roberta Cordano became the first deaf woman president at the university).
April 8, 1864: President Abraham Lincoln signs the charter of Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. creating the first school for the advanced education of the deaf and hard-of-hearing in the world.
April 15, 1817: The first permanent public school for the deaf, the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut opens.
Thanks to the efforts of deaf librarian Alice Hagemeyer, in 2006, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) and the American Library Association (ALA) announce March 13-April 15 as Deaf History Month.
Since the Deaf History Month is a national month of awareness dedicated to honoring and celebrating contributions by the deaf to American history and Culture,
I want to share my personal journey and evolution as an advocate and educator.
Back in the early 80’s I got a job working at Gallaudet’s day care center as a preschool teacher. I took the position thinking I could be a role model to the parents and children since I have a bilateral severe to profound hearing loss and was brought up orally. My speech was intelligible. I took sign language classes as part of the requirements for this position.
One of my co-teachers came up to me one day and signed with her hand “pride” and wanted to know if I was proud to be deaf? I was dumbfounded. Why would I be proud of my hearing loss I asked? My thought was people who wear glasses aren’t “proud” to have compromised vision, are they? I didn’t understand why the teacher asked me about being deaf.
A picture of Albany Public School No. 4 where I first started my journey which had a special program for children with hearing losses.
Fast forward to 2018. For many years I have reflected on my experience that day at the day care center and I now fully understand why that question was asked of me. In a way, the teacher was checking if I knew anything about deaf culture. And back then, I didn’t. Now I do. Now I am part of it.
As with any culture, there are rules, customs, traditions, memberships, history, and more. For me being part of the deaf culture is having the freedom of using American Sign Language (ASL) and typically not using voice at the same time; it is the joy of being with others who have common backgrounds in terms of using ASL and having similar experiences growing up and/or perhaps not being in all Deaf groups.
The deaf culture is the recognition that your acceptance of being with others who are Deaf and that their historical background of their life is part of the deaf culture. It is important for those members who have a family to raise their children in the deaf culture, which includes being with other deaf members. There are many successful and famous people who are deaf and Helen Keller is one of my favorite people. Did you know that Thomas Edison wore hearing aids? Gertrude Ederle, a deaf swimmer, swam the English Channel is 1926. You can be part of the deaf culture even if you wear a cochlear implant or hearing aids. It is how you perceive others with hearing loss and the acceptance of using ASL as a primary mode of communication with others, and the understanding of being deaf that allows you to be part of the deaf culture.
It is interesting for me because I can be proud of being deaf as defined by my hearing loss and usage of ASL or I can notbe part of the deaf culture since my primary mode of communication is oral. I am glad that I understand a little more about deaf culture and that the deaf community has accepted me. For those of you who are wishing to learn more about deaf culture, I would encourage you to visit Gallaudet University and go to several events when school is in session! In addition, chat with deaf folks!I
Irene Schmalz is the Deaf/Hard of Hearing Liaison at the Center for Family Involvement. She lives in Northern Virginia. She is pictured here with her husband and grandchildren.