Deafness, while disabling, does not have to be a disability: Dr Carolyn Stern



By Teresa Rehman

When sign language interpreter Barbara Haschmann Williams told me that ‘here, deafness is not a handicap but a culture”, I was intrigued. I wanted to meet successful deaf women and understand their lives, aspirations, dreams and struggles. She introduced me to Dr Carolyn Stern, a successful family medicine doctor based in Rochester, New York (USA). She received her medical degree from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and has been in practice for more than 20 years. Dr Stern showed me her specially improvised stethoscope and spoke about her life, trials and triumphs.

Excerpts of the interview with Dr Carolyn Stern:

What do you want the world to know about you and about deafness?

What I want the world to know about me: I am a Deaf Family Physician/Urgent Care Physician and School Physician, who was successful due to hard work and dedication, as well as the tremendous support from family, friends and colleagues.  No one is an island, and we succeed on the backs of many others who came before us. I had people who believed in me, and while it took me a while longer, I now believe in myself, my family and community and in what I do, to try to make this world a better place for all.

What I want the world to know about deafness is that we are all different, and all worthy of our time here on earth. People who can hear have much to learn from those who are Deaf, as well as Deaf have much to learn from those who can hear.  Deafness, while disabling, does not have to be a disability.  It is only a disability because society makes it so.  

Please tell us something about your profession?

I am a Board Certified Family Physician by training, and serve people of all ages, from the time they are in the womb (inside the mother who is pregnant), until the time it is time for them to leave this earth.  I enjoy people of all ages, and that is why I do what I do.  I used to deliver babies, now, I focus primarily on School medicine (early childhood until 12th grade), as well as Urgent Care (all ages).

How easy or difficult is it to live as a deaf person in America as opposed to another countries?

 I lived in England for a year from 1984-85 and have been a team physician in the Deaflympics (Deaf version of the Olympics) in 2001 in Italy, and have travelled to other countries, and met with many deaf from other countries.  We are in many ways, fortunate to live in the US, compared to other countries.  Some countries, like Canada and England, also have good fortune, but there is still much more to go. We still have to fight for people to recognize that there is much that other countries can learn from us, as well as recognition that we all have a place in society, and we just need to show people that we are just as deserving as anyone else. 

What is the most prevalent need you see in deaf students in American colleges today?

I have not been in the University setting in a long time! I think the most prevalent need is for good mentors, both Deaf and Hearing that will help nurture their development and success. I think we also need to develop better work opportunity pipelines so that employers recognize the value that deaf people provide, despite the extra payout.

Do you still experience discrimination and prejudice? How do you react to it?

Yes.  That will likely never go away, because Deaf people are a minority and we are different. We are a low incidence population, and if you have never met a deaf person before, you would not recognize that they can’t hear, unless you TRIED to have a conversation with someone who is deaf, and you could not cross that communication divide.  Attitudes are another reason why discrimination and prejudice will happen. Some people will have bad attitudes, and some will not. We will not be able to change everyone. 

What about deafness and your children and extended family? Has it affected them?

Our children learned first to sign, then to speak.  I believe that it really reduced their frustration when they were younger, because they could communicate.  Our daughter and older son can and have interpreted for me at different events when needed. I believe it has opened their eyes and made them more sensitive as individuals and more open minded than other individuals. For our younger son, he seems to appreciate how difficult it was for me, and so he tries hard as well, knowing that he is not the only one who has had to work hard to achieve their dreams. 

Do you feel there were any advantages you received because you were deaf as opposed to being hearing?

Some…Some scholarships are more open to people like me with a disability than if you don’t have a disability. I can turn off my hearing if I wish to…such as I want to sleep or have peace and quiet! (smiles).  I can read lips and I can pick up other languages and accents of people because that is interesting to me.  I can switch between Deaf and Hearing worlds, so I have the benefit of access to both.  I have been given the opportunity to mentor those who are Deaf in the health care fields, and can teach people, as others have taught me.  I feel I am also more sensitive to those who have different needs and can read people better than those who can hear sometimes.

What do you hate about having to use the services of an interpreter (if you use interpreting services)?

I do not “hate having to use an interpreter”, but what I don’t like, is that I have to rely on someone else. I wish I could be more independent and not have to rely on this service.  I do not like interpreters who do not recognize what they can and cannot do (their skill or competence level), and I do not like having to rely on others to decide who would qualify to interpret at the level that I need an interpreter to be. 

If you see deafness as a culture, what do you see good and bad about Deaf culture vs. Hearing culture?”

There is a Deaf and a Hearing culture, and both are good and bad. (smiles)

What is good about Deaf culture, is that you don’t beat about the bush — you are blunt and to the point, and then you explain afterward, so that you understand it better. What is bad about Deaf culture, is it is an oppressed minority, and as such, people within that culture may feel jealous of those who are successful, and try to pull them down and back-stab those who are trying to “crawl out of the bucket” or succeed, and it is called “crab theory”.

The good thing about hearing culture — It is a big culture, and there is much technology and opportunity, but bad, because many do not “think outside the box” and try to make things universally accessible.  Unless there is a law, or you do a lot of education, they will not try to make things work or try to make things better to be accommodating or functionally accessible for all people. 

Admittedly, this is simplistic, and there are many other positives and negatives that I could come up with, but these are just a few.

Do you think you are special?

Yes and no.  I think I am special, because there is no one else like me…(thank goodness!), but at the same time, we all have our own struggles and something that may be disabling for us (glasses, acne, Down Syndrome, autism, being short, being tall, overweight, etc.), but it is how we deal with those things that count. I am fortunate in many ways, to have the family that I have, to marry the man I have now, to have the three children that I do, to have the friends I have…in that way, I believe that I am special. But I also believe that we are all special, that we have much to offer the world.

Teresa Rehman

Teresa Rehman

Teresa Rehman is an award-winning journalist based in Northeast India. She had worked with India Today magazine, The Telegraph and Tehelka. She is now the Managing Editor of The Thumb Print. She has been awarded the WASH Media Awards 2009-2010. She had recieved the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award for two consecutive years (2008-09 and 2009-10) for the category 'Reporting on J&K and the Northeast (Print). She received the Laadli Media Award for Gender Sensitivity 2011, Sanskriti Award 2009 for Excellence in Journalism and the Seventh Sarojini Naidu Prize 2007 for Best Reporting on Panchayati Raj by The Hunger Project. She was also featured in the Power List of Femina magazine in 2012. Her two book are 'The Mothers of Manipur' (Zubaan Books) and Bulletproof (Penguin).