Unearthing the American Woman
By Teresa Rehman
Deirdre Schlehofer breaks into a disarming smile as she shakes hand with me and greets me in sign language. Her sheer energy is captivating as she explains her work, trials and triumphs as a successful deaf woman. Sign language interpreter Barbara Haschmann Williams vigorously interprets for me as I listen in rapt attention. As a journalist I tried to grapple with the various disability issues in India but I realised that we still have miles to go when it comes to being a disabled-friendly nation. The interaction with Schlehofer was an eye-opener and it opened a whole new window about the ‘deaf culture’ in the USA.
Schlehofer is an associate professor in the Cultural and Creative Studies Department at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) at Rochester, New York. Her primary responsibilities are teaching and research. Her research interests include language and literacy across cultures, Deaf Studies, critical theory, Deaf women’s health issues and qualitative research methods with signing communities. Schlehofer earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Alaska at Anchorage, then went on to earn her Master of Philosophy degree from the University of Bristol, England, and her educational doctorate in teaching and curriculum from the University of Rochester. She served on the executive committee at the Rochester School for the Deaf from 2013-2015 and served on the board of directors from 2009-2018. In 2012 she was selected for a RIT Faculty Scholarship Award and received the RIT Pre-Tenure Scholarship Award in 2015. She is interested in women’s health and human rights. Excerpts from our conversation:
Please tell us something about growing up as a deaf child? How was your experience in school and college? Did you ever face any discrimination?
It was 1960. I was born that year. My 22 years old parents found out I was deaf when I was approximately two years old. My mother said she suspected there was something wrong with me when I was around one year old, and the doctors kept telling her that I was “normal” and might have encountered some cognitive delays. Once I was diagnosed deaf, my parents were told to send me to a private speech therapist, so they paid out of pocket (they were very poor) for intensive speech therapy for one year. It didn’t work, so they found out about an oral school in Mystic, Connecticut. They were heartbroken that they had to send me away as I stayed at a boarding school (I was three years old). I didn’t remember my early years, but I enjoyed my time at the school as I made friends rather fast and became involved in sports (for example, basketball, field hockey, etc.), as well as extra-curricular activities. I stayed there for approximately 17 years and the school was my second home. Today, I still stay in touch with several close friends.
My parents noticed that I didn’t learn anything challenging, even though I kept learning new subjects. I was a self-starter and loved reading books. I used to read many books during the summer and wrote poems/novels as part of my creative writing project. My parents decided that I should attend a public school, so I left Mystic Oral School and entered the public school in my hometown. There, I was shocked that there were advanced classes such as science, literature writing and public speaking — those subjects were not offered at my oral school. It was a mind-blowing experience for me. I had an interpreter with me in all the classes. It was an enriching experience. But I missed my friends at my residential school. It wasn’t the same. Hearing friends talked. I was the only deaf student at the school that didn’t talk. I was a signer. I felt lonely, but I soon made friends with a couple friends that accepted the way I was, which was nice, and they learned sign language from me. I still stay in touch with them as well (Facebook).
How was your atmosphere at home? Did your parents support you?
A good question. My parents are good parents. They meant well. They didn’t want to see me sign with my younger deaf brother, so they punished us every time we signed at the dinner table on weekends. It was a frustrating experience for both of us. It felt strange to lipread to each other. We sneaked and signed away everywhere. It was our survival language. Our parents knew it. They didn’t support sign language until I was enrolled in a public school and my interpreter offered a sign language class. My parents signed up for the class and learned so much about ASL and Deaf culture. Their attitude changed overnight. It was late 1980s. They started signing to me and my brother at home. Everything improved. My Dad was a better signer than my Mom, which was unusual. Most mothers signed, not fathers. My parents are still supporters of Deaf culture and accept us 100 percent.
You call yourself a fighter?
Yes, I consider myself a fighter.
What made you one?
I saw how some of my deaf friends easily gave up as they had no choice and it was lack of education that scared me. I didn’t want to be one of them. I just knew I was different from them from the beginning. I don’t know how to explain it. I just knew it. It’s will power. I didn’t want to be stuck in something like a spider being stuck in a web. I wanted to move forward and challenge life. That’s what I did. I have dealt with many difficult situations over the years. One difficult situation involved my career. I dislike dishonesty, hypocrisy and laziness. They still bother me to this day.
Can you give an example of how you have dealt with difficult situations?
I have faced many difficult situations through my life. I can name one: I remember one guy named Ricky who bullied me for two years when I was in a public school. He threw things at me in the hallway and dining room. People were afraid of him and won’t challenge him. I kept my head up and followed what I believed was right and ignored him completely. He kept bothering me. I still ignored him and carried on. It bothered him. I was cool about it until the graduation ceremony. He was graduating. I was in the line congratulating seniors and came across him. He took a hard look at me and said, “I’m sorry.” In front of my interpreter. Then, he said, “I admire you. You’re the strongest person I’ve ever known.” I thanked him and moved on. Another example occurred when I was a career woman. I recall there was a deaf woman leader who did not respect me as a career woman as I had to keep my mouth shut and I kept a low profile until I received my tenure. Today, I am happiest where I am: I enjoy my career — teaching and doing research. I have come a long way. I have learned that patience and persistence is the key to success. I don’t believe in holding a grudge; it kills your spirit and leads to bitterness. I don’t want any of it as I stay away from negative energy.
How would you describe the deaf culture in the US?
The Deaf culture is vibrant in the US. Social media keeps us in the loop about what’s been happening in the world — not only deaf events, but other things that can affect everyone. It is normal. We are not obsessed with cochlear implant; we’re more concerned with intersectionality and diversity just like everyone else. We know we are not a homogeneous group; everyone is different. We embrace everyone no matter. That’s what counts the most.
How was your experience with the deaf culture in Zimbabwe?
It was a great awakening for me. I learned many things about Zimbabwe. I thank the Deaf community for teaching me their language and culture. I will not forget it, never. I learned that many deaf Zimbabweans didn’t learn their parent language (Shona or Ndebele) as they didn’t understand the spoken language at home, so they acquired Zimbabwean Sign Language (ZimSign) at their schools. It was an enriching experience being involved in the Zimbabwean community; they taught me so much. I learned that complaining is not important. They didn’t have everything like America; it hit me hard. Soon I learned a valuable lesson and still practice it today. I would love to return and help the deaf community in developing countries upon my retirement.
Please tell us more about your area of research on the health of deaf women?
What made you develop interest in this topic? I have always been interested in women’s rights since I was in my twenties. I started thinking about Deaf women’s rights when I was about 23 but didn’t become active until later on. When I earned my doctorate degree, I started exploring deaf women’s health and realized that there were only five articles published on this subject, even though there were hundreds of articles on women’s health. I realized there was a serious missing gap, so I became involved in this area. I am a co-director of Deaf Public Health on the NTID Center on Cognition and Language and pursuing several projects in this area. It is an exciting opportunity. Today, I am mentoring several deaf and hearing undergraduates on the projects and enjoy watching them develop their research skills. The power of mentoring is remarkable.
What gives you joy as a teacher?
It’s an excellent question. Today was the last day of classes. Several students came up to me and thanked me for introducing them to a great understanding about Deaf culture/cultural studies. A couple students hugged me; two cried. I was moved. I love to teach; it’s my passion. I like to see students think hard and realize the importance of the world from different perspectives. I keep learning from the students; they keep me young at heart. I value their input. It is important to give to the students who take a home message about the meaning of deaf culture.
How would you assess your success as a researcher, a teacher and a deaf woman?
I consider myself as a successful career woman and a teacher. I am happy with the way I am as a Deaf woman. I won’t change anything. I am glad I was born in 1960 — the right place at the right time. The era of civil rights: black rights, disability rights, and women’s rights. Today I am a firm believer in these rights and I have become involved in the causes requiring community support. Today, I have no patience for small talk/gossip — a waste of time. I shy away from political problems and stay focused on the big picture carrying out the goals in the best interests of women’s rights and health concerns. That’s what I enjoy the most about contributing back to society. It feels good.
What are the other things you do while you are not working?
Watching Netflix (without commercial) on Friday nights (my mental break from research/classwork), doing mindless tasks, hiking, spending quality time with family and friends, and doing Crossfit, as well as traveling during the summer.
What would you list as some of the major hurdles faced by deaf women in the US?
Salary disparity between deaf women and men in higher education (PhD degrees and experience, but deaf men get more power and more pay) and positionality issues. Deaf women leaders are still lagging behind deaf men. As of now, I am hoping to see more women of colour getting involved in higher education; we don’t have enough pool. Deaf students need positive role models from diverse backgrounds.
Please tell us about your experience with Crossfit? What else do you do to keep yourself fit?
I love Crossfit. I became involved in crossfitting five years ago through a mutual friend. I tried different types of fitness programs and lost interest easily until I tried out a local crossfit centre in my hometown. I like its workout of the day as it varies from day to day; it keeps changing. I like challenge and like to be challenged. It’s hard work. It’s extremely intense. I sweat at the end of the workout. I “throw out” stress and it helps me to stay calm and let go of problems at work. I soon realized that it is important to balance career and workout; I eat well. I do cheat on chocolate and fine wine, but a little indulgence is fine. Life is short, but life is long. My philosophy: Enjoy life and embrace change. I enjoy exploring life and learning new things. I like meeting people and learning about them—it’s more fun that way. I guess I am a kid at heart. Age is just an attitude.