The auditorium in the Graduate School of Social Work was almost filled to capacity on Saturday night, with only six or seven empty seats.
Before the Untold Stories of a Black Deaf Woman program began, many of the audience members talked amongst themselves. Most, however, didn’t speak — instead, they signed back and forth.
Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences Dr. John Roberts opened the program with a few words about how meaningful the event was.
“This program is groundbreaking,” Dr. Roberts said. “It’s giving voice to a group that is usually largely marginalized.”
A group of five black, deaf women were seated on stage in a panel with professor Sharon Hill as the moderator.
These women are living pioneers — including Dr. Shirley Allen, the first black deaf woman to earn a doctoral degree, and Mary van Manen, the first black deaf person in the state of Mississippi to graduate from college. Two of the five women, Dr. Allen and Michelle Martin, were born able to hear and became deaf.
The program operated as a discussion between the six women on stage, with Hill asking questions and the panel members answering or telling stories about their experiences.
One panel member, Mary Perrodin, winner of Miss Black Deaf America in 1998, was born into a family of nine, where both her parents and all but one of her siblings were deaf.
In contrast, Michelle Martin, who became totally deaf from meningitis at age 25, was the only deaf person in her family.
As the discussion continued, the panel began to touch on subjects that the hearing population would almost never think these women would encounter.
During the K-12 education portion of the discussion, Mary van Manen spoke about the absence of books or reading materials in deaf schools. As her story continued, she informed the audience that she pushed to acquire books for her all-black deaf school — they were hand-me-downs from white public schools with pages missing.
Also, during the black interpreters’ portion of the discussion, all of the women touched on the subject of the shortage of black interpreters within the deaf community and about the differences in black deaf signing as opposed to traditional American Sign Language.
They discussed the differences in black culture and how those differences also translate to black deaf culture. Van Manen highlighted some of the differences in ASL and black deaf signing and encouraged interpreters to “learn black deaf signing and learn black deaf culture.”
At the end of the program, Hill announced that the University has a new Bachelor of Arts Degree in American Sign Language Interpreting, the first four-year degree in ASL interpreting offered in Texas, which is now accepting applications.
Both Hill and Mary van Manen, who taught ASL for 46 years, encouraged those getting degrees in ASL interpreting to pursue the highest degrees available in their fields and to practice often.
Overall, the program was a window into the lives and experiences of a population that most people hardly ever think about and a testimonial about the struggles of women dealing not only with the toils of being black, but also those of being hearing impaired.