Tuesday, 23 February 2016 02:00

Meetings with Amber Smock: on communication, education and deaf people

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Dear friends and Readers of We Hear You, there are meetings and events that leave you with a feeling of fascination long after they’re over. I had the splendid chance to participate in a meeting with Amber Smock, director of the Access Living Disability Advocacy Institute in Chicago, Illinois. The event took place on 17th of February 2016 at the Faculty of Educational Studies of Sofia University ’St.Kliment Ohridski’. I was invited to attend the meeting as a media expert of the Union of the Deaf in Bulgaria. Mrs. Smock has a hearing loss herself and hosts educational events for special education teachers. She was invited to visit Bulgaria by members of the National Association of Special Education Teachers in Bulgaria (NASEDBg;  Bg abbr.:NARU). She asked to meet university teachers and students at the Speech-and-Hearing Rehabilitation Program, as well as members of the deaf community in Bulgaria. The event was organized by Associate Professor Dr. Neda Balkanska, head of the Speech-and-Hearing Rehabilitation Program at the Special Education and Speech Therapy Department of the Faculty of Educational Studies.

Some special guests also attended the meeting. Many education specialists and interested people were present at the event. Sign Language Interpreters of the NASEDBg made it possible for the International Sign Language to be translated into Bulgarian Sign Language and vice versa, so that the meeting would be accessible to each and every person involved.

10 o’clock, Hall 313 at the Faculty of Educational Studies, all seats were instantly occupied. The guests took their seats and we saw some last-minute preparations for the bilingual (Bulgarian and English) presentation happening. As host of the event, Neda Balkanska, P.D. gave a friendly speech to welcome the guests and wish them a good and beneficial time with the visiting lecturer from Chicago. After that, she let Mr. Stoyan Pavlov (secretary of the NASEDBg) announce Amber Smock’s visit in Bulgaria as part of the International Exchange Program of the US State Department.

Amber Smock was clearly excited about the occupied hall and the meeting with so many different people with hearing impairments. She particularly enjoyed the warm welcome she had and the attention she got soon after she entered the hall. She started her presentation telling her personal story to make sure the audience would get to know her well before she would tell them about her vocational activities. She named her presentation ’Communication: my personal story’ (reverse translation from Bulgarian). She admitted she was born in 1978, just three years ahead of the legislation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Her parents didn’t know she was deaf, although her mother managed to notice Amber couldn’t properly speak. They took her to see the doctor and the first statement they heard was a diagnosis of mental retardation. They highly doubted that, so they demanded second medical opinion to learn that their daughter is indeed deaf. Amber’s hearing loss is classified as moderate to severe. The doctor recommended that she got hearing aids put on both her ears, but he realized she was proficient at lip reading. That’s why he recommended that she attended regular school with speech-and-hearing therapeutic classes included. Amber’s mother enrolled her at a nursery where parent visits were allowed, so that parents could support their children.

When she was 5 year old, she attended kindergarten and speech-and-hearing therapy to aid her. At the age of 8, she tried to use an FM system, but she didn’t quite like the results. After a few years of speech-and-hearing therapy, she was so accomplished at lip reading that she didn’t need the lessons anymore. Being in her teens (12-13 years old) and a middle school student, Amber made an announcement before her parents and therapist that she would stop attending the speech-and-hearing therapeutic classes. They all respected her choice. Her therapist had tried to teach her to use a phone, but their attempts were to no avail. Amber did manage to use a teletype/teleprinter, though. The latter is among the first devices of the 80’s to convert sound into text. It looks like a typewriter with slots on both sides of the receiver much like the handset of the old-time telephones. There’s also a small screen showing up the converted text. Unfortunately, the device is heavy and not suitable for transportation as well as too noisy to be comfortably used for typing. The teletype device looks a lot like the live captioning device we told you about in one of our articles. It’s the first means of communication that Amber used with delight to expand her social circle. Communication is essential to her.

Amber was enrolled at a common high school and she was part of a class for talented children.  She used to sit in the front row and ask her teachers to face her while they were speaking, so that she could read their lips. Whenever she wasn’t aware of their words, she would ask her classmates to give her their notes. Her father suggested that she enrolled a school program for deaf students, but it turned out she was too skillful for it, so she gave up the idea. She graduated from high school being in the top 10 alumni standing out among 500 graduates. She knew she was about to get into college. The higher the level of education, the more challenging the process. Amber`s father insisted that she got support from the Disabled students’ program. She was enrolled at Berkeley College where she could use and FM system and have assistants by her side. Soon after, she gave up the FM system but kept the assistants at hand throughout her 4-year studies. She was a student at the Berkeley Arts, English and Arts practice program. She even attended a court process against the University of California to appeal for a better service for the deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

This is when Amber’s drive to advocate for the rights of the disabled people came in handy. It serves as a basis for plenty more events related to the cause, making Amber the most renown activist in the field. When she was in college, she used to work as an assistant-archivist at the University library as well as host the regular gatherings of the Disability Rights Movement. This is when Amber first came into contact with the deaf culture and the disability culture. In 2001, she got a revolutional device that enabled her to easily communicate with more people – her pager. It was a Sidekick model the size of a portable calculator with built-in keyboard. The device was extremely useful to Amber throughout her studies. She obtained her Master’s degree in Creative Writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago having completed a two-year course. She would still demand the service of an assistant, but only in the case of a few courses.

Then, she came across ‘Access living’. She started working there in 2005. Amber found out there were 4 other deaf members of the staff. They helped her as she was getting started with her job. They also helped her improve her sign language. This significantly expanded her social circle. Learning and practicing American Sign Language (ASL), Amber made many new friends among the deaf community in Chicago. She is currently commissioner at the Illinois Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission. She has hearing aids on both her ears which were initially analog, but up to this date are digital. Assistive technologies are of utmost importance to her, so that she could communicate with a large number of different people. She uses Video Relay Service (VRS), text messages (SMS), Skype, ASL interpreters, captions for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers, and rear-captioned technology at the movies. The latter could also be applied in the theatres since it’s a plexiglass screen where captions are shown for the deaf people to read while the movie is on. If Amber didn’t have access to such technologies, she would have had very limited opportunities for socializing and choosing among vocations.

This was the first part of her presentation which sparked significant interest among the audience. People from every corner of the hall were asking questions. The red-hair lecturer would answer each question in order with her vivid gestures and very clear articulation speaking perfect English with the proper grammar. She explained to us how the matters of communication are solved in the USA. As of 1990, they have the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which poses requirements on the process of communication. Whenever a deaf person needs the service of an ASL interpreter to effectively communicate with others, Amber’s organization makes sure and pays for an interpreter to be there to meet the needs of the person. Interpreters obtain different levels of competence ranging from beginner’s through intermediate into advanced and accomplished professional. The level of competence of the interpreter should correspond with the needs of the deaf person.

The deaf culture Amber mentioned in her presentation is a branch of science taught in the specialized schools for the deaf as a subject entitled History of the deaf culture. It offers anything a deaf person needs to know about American Sign Language, development, interests and special needs of the deaf communities, as well as information on the wide range of sociological and cultural features defining American Deaf Culture. Mrs Smock also outlined that people who are hard-of-hearing and communicate through means other than sign language don’t feel the same about Deaf Culture as deaf people do. She emphasized they have the right to have a different attitude to Deaf Culture. The main legal argument in this case is the Law which states a human being is a person in the first place and only then, they are a disabled person. They have the right to choose their personal means of communication and their choice is not to be judged.

The second part of Amber Smock’s presentation dealt with Deaf and Hardhearing Education in the USA. It featured the story of the most renown University for the Deaf – Gallaudet along with the presenting of other educational facilities for the Deaf. She told us how it all started when the deaf were being educated via the oral method at school, but would secretly use the manual method of education via sign language at home or among friends. It was the educator Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet who revolutionized the educational system. He really wanted to find a way to effectively teach a deaf girl named Alice, who was a student in his class and the daughter of the Cogswells. The Brits wouldn’t teach him the oral method they used, so he went to study in Paris, France where he befriended deaf teacher Laurent Clerc who taught him French Sign Language. Gallaudet invited Clerc to join him in the USA and upon their arrival in Hartford, they founded the only American Deaf School in Connecticut. In 1864, the School became what we now know as Gallaudet University. This story turned out to be really interesting for the deaf audience to learn about.

Educational facilities in other cities and states followed in Gallaudet’s footsteps, but the oral system still rivals the manual system with each method naturally developing over time. From 1880 to 1960, deaf people would still secretly use sign language. They were mistakenly treated as mentally retarded, so they were placed in inadequate educational environment. However, this period of time is marked by successful endeavours in many other fields. Deaf people had started their own clubs and founded deaf associations. They also started doing specific jobs and created trade-unions of the deaf. This is also when deaf people began to use technological devices such as hearing aids. In the 1960’s, a researcher of the Gallaudet University (William Stokoe) managed to prove American Sign Language has all the necessary components to be recognized  as a separate language. This was a good reason for American Sign Language to start being widely used and officially taught. It was also a milestone in the History of the deaf.

1973 is a year of great importance. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was passed with its Section 504 prohibiting any juridical person receiving federal funds to discriminate against disabled people. Two years later, the Education for All Handicapped Children’s Act of 1975 was established stating that education is compulsory for all the children of the above mentioned group. It required the creation of special education plan, i.e an individualized education program (IEP) for every child. Each handicapped child must have a 504 Plan and IEP with their parents and teachers working on it in agreement. Plan 504 is meant for children in need of accessibility and individualized education program (IEP) is meant for children in need of adapted curriculum. Both plans are regulated by the law. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 included the needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing citizens requiring live captioning and access to communication to be ensured.

Nowadays, the deaf and hard-of-hearing citizens of the USA have a wide range of opportunities ahead of them when it comes to education (Specialized schools for the deaf with specialized classrooms, common schools with specialized environment ensured, therapies, cochlear implants and hearing aids of the latest generation included). The need for preservation of Deaf Culture is recognized while the deaf are given access to a wider range of vocations, licensed sign language interpretation and live-time speech-to-text conversion are ensured. They participate in expositions, meetings and conferences. Yet, they still face plenty of challenges to overcome such as the controversy over cochlear implants, the difficulties learning written English, children with multiple conditions enrolling specialized schools for the deaf, the cut-down of specialized programs for the deaf and the reduction of their federal funding. They also need to ensure a wider range of employment opportunities for the deaf graduates.

Amber Smock thinks it’s absolutely necessary for a deaf child to be able to read and write and master both the oral and manual techniques. She was asked to explain how deaf people manage to find a job in the USA and what kind of difficulties they face upon their graduation. Amber told us there are no specific requirements or rules created for the deaf exclusively, since all people should respect the same rules. Deaf and hearing alike fill in application forms, write motivational letters and go to job interviews. In some occasions, deaf people are ashamed to go to an interview for they need an assistant and think the employer will regard them as unable to do the job. On the other hand, there are many cases when the deaf come to the interviews with one of their parents to assist them. This is something employers will not tolerate since the candidates are of sufficient age to be able to independently and single handedly do a job. Showing up with parents around to help you is an embarrassing situation in itself. 

In Amber Smock’s opinion, personal example is crucial. Deaf people should work side by side with hearing people to solve the problems they face. Proper communication between both sides is particularly important since this is how solutions are figured out. Problem-solving should not be done by one of the parties exclusively, but should include both to come to a meaningful conclusion. Partnership is beneficial and one of its positive sides is nobody is bossing around. Everybody is doing the task together in mutual respect of human rights and dignity.


About Access living:

Established in 1980, Access Living, whose current Director of Advocacy is Amber Smock,  is a change agent committed to fostering an inclusive society that enables people with disabilities to live fully–engaged and self–directed lives. Nationally recognized as a leading force in the disability advocacy community, Access Living (Bulgarian translation: Dostapno zhiveene) challenges stereotypes, protects civil rights and champions social reform. Their staff and volunteers combine knowledge and personal experience to deliver programs and services that equip people with disabilities to advocate for themselves. Access Living is at the forefront of the disability rights movement, removing barriers so people with disabilities can live the future they envision.

                                                                                                               Article and collages by Christina Tchoparova

Image credits: Alexander Dobrev, Chr. Tchoparova

EN translation by: Maria Mihailova

Alliance NCAC “We Hear You” is the holder of publishing rights on this article and photos


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