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Breaking Barriers

When black seamstress Rosa Parks controversially refused to give up her bus seat, she provided a new face to the burgeoning civil rights movement. When 24 year old Helen Keller became the first deaf-blind individual to earn a college degree, she rewrote the narrative about disability in America. Sometimes, on this big planet of 7 billion people, trying to make a difference can feel overwhelming. But, as Keller and Parks both proved, individuals can be very powerful agents of change.

Each day, we wake up and do what we can to make the world better. While positively impacting humanity might seem like a large task on the outside, it is as simple as taking action. Renowned multi-sport athlete, 3 time Deaflympic medalist, and Clinical Social Worker/ Psychotherapist Dr. Becky Clark tells ambitious youth: the first step to changing the world is saying “I CAN!” Her whole life, Clark says, she was told “you can’t” because she was deaf. Instead of being discouraged, though, Clark accepted the doubters challenge. She broke every single barrier along the road to her dreams, and became an inspiration for young people- deaf and hearing alike. In doing so, she achieved her goals, and paved the way for future generations of Deaf athletes to say “Yes, I can!.”

I recently did an interview at ASL Slam, this great monthly sign language poetry and performance event in NYC, to discuss my advocacy work. The interviewer surprised me when she referred to my televised appearances during Hurricane Sandy as a “tipping point.” She went on to explain that, before the Internet brought mainstream attention to my signing style, there were all these thriving Deaf organizations– D-PAN, NAD, Street Leverage, and so on– which had accumulated membership and were really shaping contemporary Deaf culture. All this internal empowerment was already happening. Then the videos of me signing went viral, and it sparked some really overdue discussion about interpreting, sign language, and deaf access in America. Hearing people were exposed, some for the first time, to the rich expressive nature of ASL, and interest in Deaf culture permeated mainstream media.

I became an agent of change; a new face for an existing movement. My interpretation style and personality felt accessible to hearing individuals, while Deaf citizens were thrilled to see someone so passionate about communicating a message to the community. The circumstances provided an opportunity for hearing people to see the full expression of ASL, and to ask questions about this silent subculture. It turned the spotlight toward Deaf performers, artists, and hardworking individuals. It exposed many to the growing field of ASL interpreting.

Although the Deaf community has come so far in the past 50 years, the struggle for equality is ongoing. Seems like every day, I read a new story about someone being denied their ADA rights in a hospital, discriminatory hiring practices, or a paying customer being treated poorly for using an American language other than English. Sometimes, it feels like the battle will forever be uphill. It feels like all our work will never be enough. Then I remember how the struggles of everyone before me paved the way, little by little. I look at the career of Claudia Gordon, a Deaf black woman who serves as Public Engagement Advisor for the Disability Community at the White House, and I know change is happening. It’s slow and incremental. But it’s happening.

A catalyst for change is not necessarily a spectacular action on it’s own– like holding the door open for someone, it can be a simple act that makes it easier for the next person to get through. I had to insist I stand close to Bloomberg to ensure I was on camera, as many crisis interpreters are cut off screen during news events. I gave each press conference my full effort, because the Deaf community deserves that. I performed my duty as an advocate and ally, which hopefully makes it easier for others in the future. When you fight for justice, you become an agent of change. No matter how large or small the action, you just need to take it. Tell yourself “I Can!”

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