Kansas SB 444: My Testimony

Kansas Statehouse_E_H_tulips

Testimony for Public Hearing

Kansas Senate, Education Committee

February 17, 2016

SB No. 444 (Committee) – On establishing an assessment program for deaf and hard of hearing children in Kansas

Dear Education Committee members,

My name is Tara Schupner Congdon, and I am a product of the preK-12 deaf education system in Kansas.

I write today to urge you to support SB 444, establishing a statewide bilingual language assessment program for deaf and hard of hearing children in the state of Kansas. My personal experience and observations of deaf education in this state over the past 30 years leads me to wholeheartedly attest to the critical need for this program, which has the potential to advance the linguistic, educational, social, emotional, and economic well-being of all deaf and hard of hearing children in Kansas.

As a profoundly deaf bilingual child of hearing parents, I entered the Total Communication (spoken/written English + Signing Exact English, SEE) program at Santa Fe Trail Elementary School, Shawnee Mission School District. With access to comprehensive visual communication through teachers of the deaf who signed and interpreters, as well as auditory and speech therapy, while fully included in the mainstream, I rapidly surpassed age-appropriate milestones. I graduated from Shawnee Mission East High School in 2001 with a 4.6 GPA, as a Kansas Honor Scholar, AP Scholar, and National Merit Scholar. I hold bachelor’s degrees in English and Journalism from the University of Kansas and a master’s in Literature from American University, and work as manager of communications for an international behavioral and neuroscience research center in Washington, D.C.  I am a product of the Kansas deaf education system.

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A Model of Marginalization

Nyle Top ModelDeaf model Nyle DiMarco’s run on America’s Next Top Model has been a hot topic. Who doesn’t like a rugged hunk with baby blues and washboard abs? Especially one who has been such a brilliant ambassador of the deaf and hard of hearing community?

Unfortunately, being an ambassador has its pitfalls. Like being marginalized on national television.

In last week’s episode of ANTM, Devin took Nyle’s phone and consequently his primary means of accessing conversations. Nyle’s response sent a powerful message about what it feels like when one person’s ignorance cuts you off from other people.

He also gained widespread sympathy from viewers, which creates the perfect opportunity to open space for a honest discussion about the deaf experience in America. Devin’s actions gave the public an insight into a pernicious attitude among hearing people that trivializes deaf people and our communication devices. This attitude and resulting behaviors seriously impact deaf and hard of hearing people’s ability to integrate into and feel accepted in hearing communities, particularly in workplaces and social events.

Nyle is far from the only deaf person to experience this marginalization. He just happened to live it out on television, in front of millions. Hundreds of thousands of deaf people, myself included, deal with this in anonymity, every day.

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I am not your hero


A couple weeks ago, a mother of a child with spina bifida wrote a courageous column titled “My Child With a Disability is Not My Hero,” which has been tumbling around — along with the usual gazillion other thoughts — in my brain.

Now, I’d like to say a few things.

First, I agree in many ways with Sarah Sweatt Orsborn’s perspective as a parent, and I applaud her for being brave enough to write about it so honestly. It’s an important question for parents of children with disabilities to think about. Orsborn writes, “The tendency of parents of kids with special needs and disabilities to say their kids are ‘heroes’ makes me deeply uncomfortable.” She explains that she feels this way because to call children with disabilities “heroes” amounts to demarginalizing and dehumanizing them. They’re just kids, and should be allowed to be kids first and foremost, not put up on a pedestal or given standards that may be tough to live up to.

Now, as someone who grew up and lives with a disability, I’d like to chip in my piece: a “Adult With a Disability” perspective. The idea of calling someone with disabilities a hero just because of what they have and who they are also makes me uncomfortable. Here’s why.

I was born deaf. I grew up deaf. I’m still deaf and will be deaf for the rest of my life.

But I am not a hero. My simply being born deaf or being deaf is no reason to call me a hero. It is just part of who I am. I was born that way. Are you a hero because you were born with blond hair? Are you a hero because you were born with brown eyes? Are you a hero because you were born with a talent for math or a talent for kicking a soccer ball?

I didn’t think so.

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The dreams horses are made of

Pye 14I started dreaming when I was about 5. Over the years, as that dream began to take form, it had big gentle brown eyes and a soft velvety muzzle that would nudge me for carrots and hugs. It had the spirit and courage to jump any wall, the talent to win blue ribbons, the gentleness to take care of its rider, and the patience to listen to a girl’s confidences. It would be my best friend through thick and thin, in a world where other kids were fickle and cruel and books didn’t respond to me or lean into my brushes and embraces. It would be my partner in adventures, the best of Starlight, Black Beauty, Misty, Artax, and every other fictional horse rolled up in one. It was a dream for which I begged and pleaded, worked and saved, and nurtured for 11 years before it became reality and I held it in my hands.

Last Tuesday, that dream started its usual trek up from the pasture for his dinner. But this time, he never made it. Somewhere along the corridor between the pasture gate and the stall, he laid down and his soul left his body.

The next morning, I woke up to learn that for the first time in 14 years, I no longer owned a horse. The dream I’d nourished for 25 years had died.

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Text-to-911 service available for deaf and hard of hearing in Denver

AT&T/Relay Colorado, the Colorado Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and my business, Context inMedia, recently partnered to produce a commercial promoting a  text-to-911 service now available for deaf and hard of hearing people in Denver.

Before current technology, if an emergency happened, deaf and hard of hearing people faced serious challenges in contacting emergency services. Now, with various relay services – especially video relay – it’s much easier to call 911 using your videophone, computer, laptop, or mobile phone. However, internet or video relay often isn’t ideal in fast-paced emergency situations when you’re not at the address to which your VP/account is registered. And many deaf and hard of hearing people do not sign fluently and so cannot use video relay to call 911, and internet relay is notoriously slow.

This is where text-to-911 can help. No more chasing after hearing people, asking them to call for you. No more standing by at the scene of an accident, wishing you could do something but feeling you can’t, because you have no way to contact 911. Now, deaf people can step up and do it themselves!

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Revisiting censorship and Kristin Henson’s “Dirty Signs”


Now that Kristin Henson’s book, “Dirty Signs,” has been published and outrage is now circulating among the Deaf community on social media, I thought it a good time to reprint the column I wrote in early 2012 about freedom of speech and why it’s so important that we understand the distinction between banning and protesting a book.

People who write negative reviews on the book’s Amazon page are doing the right thing.

People who write protest letters to the book’s publishers are doing the right thing.

People who say it should never have been published are saying the right thing.  

People who say it should have been banned in the first place are saying the wrong thing. 

Henson’s book should never be banned, but I can support protesting a majority group member’s economic exploitation of the endangered language of a minority group. It is immensely unfair that even as thousands of deaf children are being deprived of or actively barred the opportunity to learn American Sign Language, a hearing person with very little connection to deafness is profiting from perverting the language (not only by teaching only dirty signs, but also by doing them wrong). 

I know people are not going to like my position, but I will always, always support our constitutional rights to freedom of speech and the press. So, without further ado, here’s the original column.

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Tough decisions in disaster journalism

(Left) A child is pulled from the rubble of the Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., and passed along to rescuers after Monday's tornado. By Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press. (Right) A starving infant lies on the ground in Somalia, with a vulture in the background. By Kevin Carter.

(Left) A child is pulled from the rubble of the Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., and passed along to rescuers after Monday’s tornado. By Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press.
(Right) A starving infant lies on the ground in Somalia, with a vulture in the background. By Kevin Carter.

A friend on Facebook posted about Kevin Carter, a journalist who shot a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a starving infant in Somalia, was roundly criticized for not helping her, and a year later – deeply scarred by that incident and repeated experiences of shooting wars and disasters – committed suicide. And that made me think of the media’s coverage of the recent tornado that demolished Moore, Okla.

The ethical dilemma between whether to shoot/cover or to jump in and try to prevent tragedy is a constant in the j-biz, always discussed and debated by journalists and bloggers (such as this one about Kevin Carter), and is often something I muse about. It can be extremely traumatizing for journalists, and Poynter even has guidelines for how to cope. Do you remain an impartial, non-involved observer so that you can report tragedies to the rest of the world, or do you put down your pen and camera and become essentially a volunteer worker? Does your presence contribute to changing the circumstances of the event, thereby placing greater moral responsibility on you to help? Where is the line between these jobs and does it have to be absolute? Is the former equally as important as the latter when it comes to events like the famine in Somalia, Hurricane Katrina and the Moore Tornado? Does “duty to rescue” apply to journalists too?

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Incipit: It begins

"The Beginning" Road Sign with dramatic blue sky and clouds.

Recent events, particularly over the past couple months, have spurred me to start this blog. I used to be a prolific blogger until grad school – too much writing for academia essentially killed any desire to write in my spare time! And then I focused on my journalism career. But after a few years’ hiatus, the pieces seem to have fallen into place for me to resume a more personal form of writing. This time around, my intentions with this blog are to share my contemplations about media and journalism, explore the relationship between the media and the deaf community and sprinkle in personal tidbits about newlywed life in Colorado.

One particular piece that contributed to kick-starting this blog is the virulent criticism I’ve received whenever I write an article or op-ed about issues related to deafness. Deaf education and culture are hot-button issues and often spark very loaded, acrimonious debates in which people frequently make assumptions about others’ backgrounds, beliefs and values. This has been particularly true of comments left on some of my videos and articles, and because I generally abide by a policy of not commenting or engaging with commenters on my videos/articles themselves, I often do not respond to or correct these criticisms and assumptions. I also have not had any forum in which I could lay out my personal beliefs and reasons for covering issues the way I did and the choices I made in the process – which actually often are very different from what some people assume, particularly when my coverage does not appear to jibe with their own beliefs or perspectives. The only opportunities I have to respond or clarify typically come when individuals e-mail me about my work or I see something in a thread on Facebook that I think is worth responding to (such as when someone thought I was hearing). These limitations can be very frustrating, hence the creation of this blog to allow me a forum in which I can publicly introspect and reflect on my work and on tangential issues. Because I often muse about far more topics and issues than I actually write about for publication (and because Facebook just isn’t an ideal outlet for the mini-essays I like to produce!).

That means anything on this blog, unless otherwise stated (usually with a title that begins with Report:), should be considered my personal opinion. And I hope that, while I recognize that all journalists – myself included – have personal biases that we struggle with when writing articles, readers will give me the benefit of the doubt when I say that I make a honest effort to be factual in my reporting and reserve my opinions to my blogs/op-eds and try to separate the two as best as I can. Of course, it often isn’t that simple and I work through a very complex thought process whenever I write about a difficult topic, and that’s what I hope to write about here as well.

That said, I hope you’ll enjoy my blog and maybe even learn a thing or two about me and the topics I discuss in my blog posts!