Karen Griffard Putz* and I connected through the 2011 Hot Mommas Project, the world’s largest case study library to support women and girls through access to mentors and role models.
Karen won in the Sports, Wellness & Fitness category and I won in the History Maker Category.
Being part of the Hot Mommas Project is the first thing we had in common. The second is, Karen is deaf and I’m hard of hearing. We also both blog – you can find her at deafmomworld.com. The last and most important commonality is that we both like to laugh.
The Interview Process
She and I laughed a lot at our technical and hearing challenges during our Skype interview. We had completed the “first” interview and were high fiving each other when I realized somehow I’d managed to turn the recorder off 4 seconds into our interview.
As I slumped down and banged my head on my desk, Karen couldn’t read my lips but she sure read my expression.
Fortunately, she agreed to repeat the interview.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the end of the technical problems, but this time they had nothing to do with me. Whew. But it did start to feel like a joke: a deaf person and a hard of hearing person walk into a bar named Skype…
The end result? The first part of the interview is transcribed here. The rest is in the video that follows.
Cherry: You weren’t deaf in elementary school but were already hard of hearing. You wrote that you tried hard “to fit in, blend in, and fly under the radar.” What were some of the things you did?
Karen: Oh, I did all kinds of things. For example, we’d have a teacher who would go around the room having all of us read paragraphs. I developed an elaborate system, so no one would know I didn’t hear well enough to follow where we were. I didn’t want the other kids to see me as different. Or stupid.
I’d count the number of students in front of me, then count the paragraphs and lip read as best I could so I could figure our where we were in the story. Then when it came to my turn I knew which paragraph was mine. So it flowed seamlessly and appeared I knew what I was doing and that I could hear everything.
I also became the Queen of Bluffing because that was a way to fit in; to fly under the radar. I’d nod and smile and act like I knew what the other kids were saying. So it looked like I was engaged in the conversation. Unfortunately, with bluffing both the hearing and the non-hearing people lose, because in reality, the opportunity to really share something is lost. You don’t get to know each other.
The hearing child or adult thinks they’re getting my understanding but they’re not, because unbeknownst to them, I didn’t hear what they said. I was just bluffing – acting as if I heard and understood what they said. .
Cherry: I know what you mean. With my hearing loss, if I’m conversing with a soft-talker, I get tired (and sometimes feel embarrassed) of asking the person to repeat what they said, so I just nod. It’s really bad when nodding wasn’t the appropriate response and the other person looks at you like you’re rude or stupid.
Karen: Right, bluffing is a no-win situation.
Cherry: How did it affect your confidence to have to bluff and create elaborate systems to appear like you fit in when you really believed you didn’t fit in.
Karen: It definitely affected my confidence because I felt like I was a lesser person. All I knew were people with normal hearing and I couldn’t do what they could do.
As a kid, especially, you don’t want to be different and I was. As I got older and people knew I was deaf (Karen became deaf at age 19), hearing people would tell me about all the things I couldn’t do. For instance, I always wanted to be a nurse but I was told I couldn’t possibly be one since I was deaf. Now I know that there are deaf doctors, deaf nurses, deaf veterinarians, deaf engineers, you name it. Had I known that when I was young I think it would have helped my confidence level.
Video – Completion Of The Interview
NOTE: My apologies to deaf and hard of hearing individuals – I could not put closed captions on Vimeo video. However a full transcript is available at the end of blog, after the short bio’ about Karen. Thank you for your patience with my technology learning curve.
*Karen Griffard Putz is a deaf mom of three deaf and hard of hearing children. She holds a B.S. in Counseling and an M.A. in Rehabilitation Counseling from Northern Illinois University. Karen mentors families in an Illinois early intervention program and writes for the Chicago Tribune TribLocal and Chicago Now blog. Karen sits on the board for Hands & Voices and is the founder and board member of Illinois Hands & Voices. In her spare time, Karen can be found competing at barefoot water skiing tournaments and has been featured on espnW, Growing Bolder, AOL That’s Fit, The Waterskier, Waterski, and Suburban Woman. She is the recipient of the 2011 Hot Momma’s Project Award and is one of twenty deaf women honored as The Pearls. Karen has been published in several books, including “On the Fence, The Hidden World of the Hard of Hearing” and an upcoming Chicken Soup for the Soul book.
Karen has spoken at numerous conferences and shares her unique insight on life, both as a parent of teenagers and as a deaf individual. Her topics include Social Bluffing, self-esteem, advocacy, and “Life on Spin Cycle.”
Transcript of video interview
Cherry: When you were nineteen, you were bare foot waterskiing and had a bad fall. You hit a wave and you became deaf. Totally deaf at that time. Things I read that you wrote, you said you saw that as a blessing. I was surprised. How was that a blessing?
Karen: I didn’t see it as a blessing at that time. When it happened, it was devastating.
When I got into the boat, I thought hmm… I have water in my ears. I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought until weeks went by and I was getting ready to go to Northern Illinois University, and that was the moment I realized, oh my gosh, this hearing isn’t coming back.
When I arrived at school, they put me in a dorm with deaf and hard of hearing people. Of course I protested. “I’m not like them. Put me on a ‘normal’ floor.”
But my mom said to me “Karen, give this a chance. Maybe you’ll make some friends.” And she was right. Mothers are always right.
At first it was very difficult, everybody was signing American Sign Language and I didn’t know any sign language except finger spelling. So I didn’t fit into the hearing world and I didn’t fit into that world either so I was a stranger in this foreign land I’ve landed in. Nights were difficult, I cried. I spent night after night crying dealing with tinnitus, a ringing sound in my ears.
This went on for a couple months and then I woke up one morning and came to the realization that I could either keep on crying and be miserable or I could change my attitude about it and be the best possible deaf person I could be.
The choice was an obvious one. I wasn’t prepared to be miserable all my life. I put my hearing aid in (Karen can hear some ambient sounds) and for the first time put my hair behind my ear to allow my hearing aid to show.
I asked for an interpreter for all of my classes and started learning American Sign Language. My life started to change then. That’s when I saw it as a blessing. I was now connected with dear and hard of hearing people from all over the world.
The bigger blessing was that I learned to completely accept myself for who I was. I stopped bluffing, for the most part. :o)
Cherry: Accepting yourself for who you are is a blessing for all of us, no matter if we have a disability or not.
Now you’re married to a man who’s deaf and have three children who are hard of hearing. You decided to set up a website Jobs, Careers, and Callings – Deaf and Hard of Hearing People at Work, in part to help your children, yet they weren’t yet old enough to be looking for a career.
Karen: I didn’t have role models in my life and that was difficult. I wanted my kids exposed to all the possibilities open to them. I wanted them to see that they could do whatever they wanted.
Cherry: You role modeled for them how to fight/advocate. You took on a fast food restaurant - can you tell us that story.
Karen: That happened a couple years ago. My son and I were in the car after picking him up from school and we wanted milkshakes. The drive-thru was empty and I pulled up to window, as I always do and the man at the window asked that I go around again to order through the speaker.
I said “Wait a minute I’m deaf”. But he still insisted that I had to follow their policy and order at the speaker. That wasn’t going to work. Even if I went back to the speaker I couldn’t hear it to place an order. So there still would have been a problem.
I filed a complaint with the fast-food restaurant. There was coverage on ABC news and I received a lot of comments about it on my blog.
I wanted the fast food restaurant to have an understanding of the barrier of the drive-thru for deaf and hard of hearing individuals. I want all the fast food restaurants to understand it.
Most hard of hearing people will go inside to order because of the barriers at the drive-thru. We have to change that.
Cherry: That must have taken a lot of courage to fight a big company.
Karen: Actually, it took a little bit of courage. I felt it was the right thing to do. I wanted to advocate. I think things happen to us for a reason. We were put on this earth because we have jobs to do — jobs like create the awareness and change things at the drive-thru. We have a long way to go though. Companies aren’t willing to face the problem with the drive-thru and break down the attitude barriers and physical barriers at the drive-thru.
Cherry: Do you sometimes find that you’re still scared, like the little kid you were in elementary school and want to fly under the radar,or are you filled with confidence now?
Karen: No, no, definitely not scared on [elementary school] level. I’m comfortable with who I am. I can go to a new situation with people, and there’s always that little girl inside of me that gets scared. It still comes out. For example, the first time I went down to Florida and got on a boat with people I didn’t know, the little girl inside me got scared and wondered can I communicate with them? Will they like me? Will they see who I am? I think it’s just a human thing.
Karen: To feel accepted for who we are is a human thing, not necessarily a deaf thing.
Cherry: You say that your long-term hope for diversity is to find ways to overcome attitude barriers. Attitude is a mindset. What ideas do you have about changing people’s mindset.
Karen: There’s a quote by Jo Waldron “Attitude is the worst barrier of them all” and she is right. It’s much, much harder to overcome. We have to start when the kids are small so they grow up with people with disabilities. I want people to not be measured by what they lack but by what they have.
Cherry: That’s a wonderful way to end this interview. Thank you Karen.
Karen: Thank you Cherry. I enjoyed it.