Deaf Person of the Month
WPSD’s first hunger striker
About your background . . .
I was born and raised in New Jersey with my Deaf grassroots family. I went to MSSD and then Gallaudet University. I double-majored in Government and Philosophy, and had dreams of going to law school and fighting for Deaf rights but somehow I lost interest during my last year at Gallaudet. Instead of deciding what to do with my future, I applied for Peace Corps and went to Ecuador. During two stints with Peace Corps in Ecuador and Kenya, I was afforded an opportunity to learn four new languages—Ecuadorean Sign Language (ESL), written Spanish, Kenyan Sign Language (KSL), and Kiswahili. The Peace Corps was the toughest job I had ever done. It also allowed me to see and understand what being poor really means.
I was a high-school Social Studies teacher for 8 years, and have been teaching ASL at a nearby community college for the past 6 years. But, mostly, I am a stay-at-home mother taking care of two toddlers, ages 4 and 2.
At WPSD, I experienced severe oppression and workplace bullying/retaliation. I, along with many Deaf employees, expressed our frustrations about the communication policy, i.e., catching hearing faculty and staff speak without signing and reporting them with no subsequent action taken, long before I came to work at WPSD (2007- 2009).
It is unusual for a teacher to keep on meeting with the school superintendent shortly after the school received employee complaint letters. Instead of hearing us out and meeting us halfway, he bullied, intimidated, and retaliated me as well as others for standing up and speaking out for our Deaf rights against discrimination and oppression that was happening in the workplace as well as for students’ learning and language rights. He bribed me in exchange of evidence (I have proof) but I chose to ignore his blackmail letter and applied for unemployment compensation and then filed an EEO complaint against WPSD (for workplace violence/bullying/retaliation).
I understand that WPSD has a repressive policy that limits students' exposure to ASL in the classroom to two 30-minute sessions per week. Who was responsible for deciding this policy, and that Sim-Com should be given preference?
As WPSD administrators love to say, “It is Rhoten’s decision and policy.” (Documented in numerous teacher complaint letters.)
Looking back, I will say Don Rhoten’s General Assembly: Retirement Announcement was what sparked the fire between me and Swanhilda. Superintendent (also known as CEO) used the sign cards to announce his retirement throughout the 12-minute video (vlog) via WPSD Website and on Facebook without using ASL—the language of the Deaf. His demeanor shows his audist disdain toward ASL as a language.
Left to right, front: Max Hegedus (PA), Mateo Bonn (CO), Richard Wilt (PA, WPSD alumnus), Jolene Hendrickson (PA, WPSD alumna), Swanhilda Lily (CO, WPSD alumna). In back: Robert Mason (DC).
Was the hunger strike your idea?
Yes, it was my idea. After all, I’m a Social Studies teacher. At first, I planned to do hunger strike on my own. I knew it was the only way, really. As soon as I shared my intentions with Swanhilda, she confidently said, “I’m with you!” We both know it’s taking too long to do something about the foundations of Deaf Education and schools across the country. I do recall telling her how hard it is to do it so far away from the school. She disagreed and believed the protest will spark the fire on Facebook, which it did.
Originally, my objective was to have some WPSD Board of Trustees to resign from their posts and have them replaced with ASL-fluent, Deaf teachers.
Shortly after the newspaper reporter came and reported the story, I felt I accomplished my mission. I ate pizza that night, and then in the morning, Swanhilda said she was going to stay on hunger strike and use BOT replacement as the sole demand. I knew it would be hard for her to do it alone, especially being so far away from WPSD. I live about 20 minutes away, and know it will make a whole lot difference if I stay on hunger strike, as a team.
The objective is to replace the current BoT (84% are hearing BoT with no or minimal knowledge in ASL.
Their behavior has shown that they are, in so many ways, guilty. They removed and changed a lot with their Website, and they even had to add a hashtag #wpsdproud to counter-attack us—a small group of women seeking justice against oppression and abuse. They are not willing to see things from our viewpoint, and to understand why we are concerned about audism and linguicism at WPSD
What sort of a response has there been from the Deaf community?
A lot of them are angry, confused, embarrassed, scared, worried, skeptical, revengeful by bringing old, personal issues into all this. No sense of unity, none whatsoever.
Lots of dysconscious audists who are colonized while using Sim-Com. However, a WPSD alumna/former WPSD teacher is planning a meeting with alumni and former students to find the middle ground.
The administration have not had a change of heart and are continuing to disrespect our concerns about the high # of hearing Board of Trustees with no knowledge or expertise in Deaf Education and ASL, and about audism and linguicism at WPSD. About 13 of Board members out of 18 have no knowledge in ASL; about 10 of them are in the business world, one is a cochlear-implant surgeon, one is a KDKA news reporter, one is a lawyer. We have only four Deaf Board members. We also have plentiful of evidence that WPSD practices bullying, workplace violence, oppression, audism, linguicism, discrimination, and language deprivation (as documented since 1999).