Spring Chill, Summer Thaw, Autumn Harvest

Last winter just a few days before the vernal equinox, I was enjoying being home in Albuquerque when I learned that a right-leaning blog across the pond had picked up a blog post I had written about genetics and the potential impact on the signing deaf community. (Note to self: getting a text from a high-level university administrator during Spring Break is best avoided.)

The post had been translated into ASL on a deaf community internet news site, and I knew that it was getting some attention in the signing community. As an academic, I was delighted that lively conversations were happening about gene editing in the deaf community. Also as an academic, I expect (and hope) that not everyone will agree with me. Part of the joy of being a member of the academy is partaking in thoughtful disagreement, and if that exchange sharpens my arguments, that’s all the better.

The conservative critique of my blog post spread to several sites, many of these located in the alt-right sphere. Once I realized that the “critique” (I use this phrase lightly) was much more sensationalized than thoughtful, frequently making points against straw men instead of what I had actually argued myself, I stopped looking at the blogs and news sites. Per my usual practice, I didn’t bother to read the comments. I did look to see what other academics wrote in response (mostly on social media), and in several cases, responded to their thoughtful critique via email or private message.

Perhaps I was naive, but I wasn’t prepared for emails threatening my person and well-being. These shook me up, especially those containing specific personal information that indicated the writer had taken the time to do some research. I followed the advice I’d been given by colleagues who had found themselves in similar circumstances. Keep everything. Tell campus security. Inform your local law enforcement. Being that I live in the ‘hood, I also told my neighbors what was up. I have fiercely protective neighbors who pay close attention when something out of the ordinary is happening. This is mildly annoying when someone I’m dating comes to my home and my neighbors grill me about it the next day, but the tradeoff of community is worth it. My neighbors know that I am deaf, and we have a number of different ways to get in touch and check in on one another given our various languages and language modalities.

After I returned to DC the next week, where I was living in temporary quarters for the semester, I felt a little safer. When I came back to Albuquerque at the end of the term, I was stunned to realize that this experience had thrown up a writer’s block for me like nothing before. I was embarrassed to discover that emails from people (most likely individuals living far from my either of my home cities) had generated such a chilling effect on my speech, and I simmered for weeks with self-directed anger that I had responded in precisely the way that these writers had probably intended I would. I don’t think of myself as someone who backs down from a confrontation; my life history arcs toward pressing for justice.

But this was different.

This wasn’t a matter of going up against an institution or organization that was violating the law by refusing to provide disability accommodations. Institutions and organizations may indirectly threaten my well-being by making it harder for me to do my job, and in my pre-tenure days, I was almost always worried about how my persistence would reflect on me.

Would I be perceived as a troublemaker? Would I be viewed as too expensive? Would I be passed over for opportunities due to the work involved in arranging for my accommodations?

I’m happy to report that now that I’m on the other side of tenure, these worries have subsided. That said, I recognize that I am one of the lucky ones, and that there are many colleagues with disabilities who are unemployed, precariously employed, or navigating the tenure process. And there are also others with tenure who worry about the impact of disability disclosure on the trajectory of a career.

This summer, I discovered that anonymous threats to one’s person or property are much harder for me psychologically than refusals to provide accommodations. I’ve been harassed online previously by people who weren’t anonymous, yet these things have a way of playing out over time, especially when one has incontrovertible evidence against their claims, such as (for example) having proof that signed language interpretation was provided at a diversity conference one attended, despite accusations to the contrary by someone not in attendance. But not knowing where threats are coming from is far more unsettling. Fortunately, I finally did get to a point where I could write again, although I’ve been reluctant to put any of my work out for public consumption these past several weeks.

But here it is, the end of the summer, and everything is due or (over)due, so my hibernation is over. It took me dozens of miles of hiking throughout the southwest for me to reach my conclusion, plus several nights of solo sleeping under the stars for me to put this in perspective. I needed a little time and space to reflect about this experience, and I’ve decided that I’m not willing to be the kind of academic who stops writing for the public when she’s threatened with bodily harm.

Besides, there’s a big debate ramping up about human gene editing and disability — something I’ve been writing and thinking about for over a decade now (see my 2011 University of New Mexico dissertation, The Quest for a Deaf Child: Ethics and Genetics), and I have a few things I want to say about a community I love — threats be damned.





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How (Not!) To Be Inclusive: Deaf Academic version


a) Ask the deaf academic if she is willing to write a grant to cover the cost of her interpreters or CART captioning.

b) Return the deaf academic’s conference registration fees, telling her that she cannot come to your conference because her interpreters are too expensive.

c) Tell the deaf academic that she is welcome to attend and bring her own interpreters/CART captioning, and you won’t charge them registration fees (but she’ll have to pay for their services).

d) Tell the deaf academic that she is welcome to attend and bring her own interpreters/CART captioning, and you will only charge them half-cost registration fees (but she’ll have to pay for their services).

e) Tell the deaf academic (who is a graduate student) that she is welcome, and provide accommodations as requested. Upon her arrival greet her warmly, taking her aside to let her know that she is the most expensive person attending the conference, costing even more than the keynote speaker.

f) Cover the cost of the accommodations, but at your next organization board meeting, title an agenda item “the interpreter problem”. Minutes from this meeting will include the following suggestion from a lawyer on the board: hold an essay writing competition that will be judged by a subset of the board, with the best essays getting the prize of accommodations to the next conference.

(g) Tell the deaf academic (an assistant professor of philosophy) that she should meet the organization halfway, and pitch in expenses, just as you do when you upgrade your flight to business class from coach. Ignore that as a Professor of Medicine with a private practice, the cost to upgrade to business class is negligible for you, and the cost of accommodations for the conference is equivalent to two months take-home salary for the philosophy professor.

h) Welcome the deaf academic to the conference, and then, at the disability task force meeting, yell at the deaf academic for not using her CART captioning because she arrived late to the conference due to a delayed flight.

i) Provide interpreters to the conference, but have a staff member follow the deaf academic to make sure that she is using the interpreters for each session of the conference. If the deaf person decides to speechread a colleague and talk to them without accommodation (though the interpreters are standing by at the ready) be sure to note this when the interpreters bill the organization.

j) Provide interpreters to the academic organization professional meeting, but chastise the deaf academic when she uses her time during the annual meeting to talk to professional colleagues and meet with them to discuss their mutual projects. Claim that the definition of the annual meeting is restricted only to providing access during official sessions, and does not include conversations in the hallway or at receptions.

k) Grudgingly agree to provide interpreters for the conference, but tell the deaf academic that if any sessions run overtime, the deaf academic is responsible for paying the overage costs. Get extremely defensive after receiving a letter about the illegality of this from the National Association of the Deaf Law Center (that was cc’d to board members) and say that’s not what you meant at all, thus scapegoating the deaf academic once again.

l) Refuse to pay for the interpreters after you have invited the deaf academic to give a talk.

m) Refuse to pay for the interpreters after the deaf academic has given the talk.

n) Talk to members of your department about changing your open-to-the-public colloquia open to the department only, so that the deaf academic from another university who sometimes attends your colloquia is excluded, and your department doesn’t have to pay for accommodations.

o) Pay for the colloquium interpreting, but deny the request for the interpreters to interpret the group dinner afterwards. Disinvite the deaf academic from the dinner. Gaslight her by telling her that the dinner invitation was mistakenly made and only meant for members of the department. Look unembarrassed when you are all at a gathering the next day and the other non-department members attending the talk reference the dinner conversation, making it plain that this was not a department-only event, but a hearing people only event.

p) Restrict the deaf academic’s communication access to only the session of the conference that she is presenting, saying that this is all your budget will permit. Tell her she’s welcome to attend the whole conference, nonetheless.

q) Tell the deaf academic (a graduate student) that she will not get an honorarium for her talk because you will use the funds to pay for her interpreters instead. Do this after she has booked her travel and is counting on the honorarium to cover those costs.

r) Agree to provide interpreters, but use a staff member’s church network to find someone who “knows ASL”. Book that uncertified, untrained, and unqualified person for a sophisticated academic conference demanding topnotch skills, then claim that you followed the law by providing an “interpreter.”

s) Ask the interpreter out for drinks while she is interpreting. Refuse to accept ‘no’ for an answer. Refuse to acknowledge the deaf academic while you are doing this. Better yet, tell her to go away because you have something private to discuss with the interpreter.

t) If you are the spouse of a person giving a colloquium talk, complain to the deaf academic afterwards that the interpreter was distracting people from the important points of your spouse’s paper. Tell the deaf person that she should tell her interpreter to sit down, and suggest that maybe the university should stop providing interpreters, given the visual distraction.

u) Ignore the deaf academic’s request to contact the interpreting agency that provides local interpreters who know her academic discipline and the technical terms of discourse. Instead, hire the cheapest agency in town, providing unqualified interpreters for non-signers to gawk at, but no access for the deaf academic.

v) Ignore the deaf academic’s expert knowledge grounding her objection that the interpreters provided were unqualified for the assignment. Respond by saying, “They were moving their hands weren’t they? They looked like they were working hard to me!”

w) As a conference attendee, tell the deaf academic that the inept and unqualified interpreter working the conference is doing an amazing job.

x) Remind the deaf academic in each email how much her accommodations are costing the organization.

y) Provide accommodations for the official events of the program, but none of the social events. In feedback after the event, note to the deaf academic that other people attending the event were disappointed that she did not join them for the social events, underscoring the expectation to be collegial.

z) Tell the deaf academic that she will not get the honorarium all other workshop participants received since hers was used towards the cost of her interpreters.

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Time, Speedviewing, and Deaf Academics

This post is dedicated to all Deaf and disabled academics who fight the struggle of time.

Back when I was a graduate student, a deaf professor remarked to me, “It isn’t being deaf that’s the issue, it is all the time that it takes!” After several weeks of working on interpreter arrangements for a series of talks I’m giving in the near future, the truth of this hits home once again.

In the midst of my current time crunch, I have received several emails that have English and ASL versions. While my preference is always to get the message in the initial language delivered, when that is ASL, I find myself turning to the English for expedience. Some of this is because English is my first language, but it also is because I am a very fast reader, and can read an English text in a fraction of the amount of time that I use watching an ASL video text.

The reasons for this may not just be related to my native facility with English and my non-native facility with ASL. I can do this in other languages (German and Spanish) though not as rapidly, and not as well, but far faster than I can process ASL video text. So it seems to me that this may be a matter of modality, rather than language. Perhaps if I were fluent in one of the sign-writing systems, this time differential would disappear.

My friends who are born blind and use Kurzweil (or similar) text to speech readers have the ability to speed the reader up and process speech at a much faster rate than natural conversational rhythms (about 120-150 words per minute). Television and radio commerce pick up this pace to 160-180 wpm; auctioneers rattle off their patter at around 250 wpm. For someone like me, who struggles to speechread nervous philosophers reading papers full of syntactically complex sentences at (I’m guessing) somewhere upwards of 180 wpm, these comprehension feats seem like super powers.

Then again, I’m perhaps too easy to impress — upon getting my current hearing aids last summer, which have the ability to communicate with each other and thus allow me to determine the direction of sound for the first time in my life, I felt as though I’d gained a super power, or at least, I did for a few seconds, until I realized that this fell right into species typicality.

I don’t know whether my born deaf or ASL native friends are able to speedview ASL videos and process these at a rate similar to what skilled speedreaders can do, closing the gap between the time it takes to rapidly process written English against rapidly processing ASL. I suspect that the features of ASL videotext work against this.

Consider: with written English (or any language) one can view a page of text at once. That’s a big chunk of information. Now, contrast that with a sped-up video. It seems to me that at some point, speeding up the video results in a deterioration of signal (whether auditory or visual), and consequently, impacts comprehension. (I know this is a matter of empirical data, so perhaps someone can point me to some resources here — I’m capable of googling, of course, but don’t have the background to assess the *best* work in the area, and am skeptical of using H indices and the like as proxy.)

Modality matters, in more ways than one, for the Deaf academic. And, I suspect, also for other disabled academics who are not accessing written text visually.

I’m not sure how this impacts the writing system of Braille. I know that Braille uses shortcuts that enable the reader to read faster, but I wonder whether this may point out not just the difference of modality, but of perception in conjunction with modality. It may be the case that readers of visual written language have an advantage over readers of tactile written language, since the eye may be able to take in and process more rapidly than the fingers. I am thinking here of the ability, once again, of the eye to take in chunks of information, and what I assume are the constraints of the space available on the fingertips to take in information at a similar rate. It seems (and again, I’m ignorant) that the very motion of running one’s fingers horizontally against text would be less expedient.

I’m a speedy reader; always have been. (It’s a family trait that goes back at least 5 generations back that I can tell.) I have used speed reading as a disability accommodation strategy since I was a kid in elementary school before I had the label to put on it. At the beginning of the school year, I would read through all of my textbooks during the first week or so, then would use that information as scaffolding for retrieving more information. At that time, in the pre-internet days, this meant checking out library books on those subjects. Read faster, read more, was how this hard of hearing kid stayed on top of things. Lucky me, to have a librarian mom who could appeal to other librarians to bend the rules of book checkout limits.

This strategy worked very well for classwork; horribly for popular culture.

As part of my hard of hearing kid social strategy, I became a voracious reader of the newspapers that came into our home, skipping the business section for the arts and culture section. The problem was that other 4th graders weren’t reading Robert Hilburn’s views on music in the Los Angeles Times, but listening to Dr. Demento on KMET. Most of them also didn’t have parents who played Respighi and Tjader; as the oldest child, I didn’t have the benefit of siblings to cue me in to this uncoolness. (I’m still paying that price, but in the academy this ignorance becomes cachet of a sort.)



The point I started with was about the limited resource of time that constrains Deaf and disabled academics in unique ways in the academy. Some of us figure out strategies that allow us to compensate for the time-suck of disability advocacy in the academy, not all of which can be addressed by universal accommodations, although some can, including advocating the practice of placing interpreters everywhere one might be needed. Yet, this disregards something very important about interpreters and deaf academics. (Let me note that I have yet to see a Deaf academic advocating for this practice — we know all too well the potential impact of such a practice on our careers.)

I cannot imagine outsourcing interpreter selection to a disability support staff person who knows nothing about the content or norms of academic philosophy, and cannot understand why this would be a better system. Contrary to popular opinion, even highly skilled ASL-English interpreters are not fungible. (There are lots of reasons why this is the case that I cannot go into right now.) This and other misconceptions about signed language interpreting are what drive my current research leave project — a monograph on signed language interpreting ethics that also dips into epistemology and ontology. So at some point in the future, you’ll have the opportunity to learn my views.

Note: for blog readers in Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, the lack of a plural in ‘epistemology’ and ‘ontology’ is *quite* deliberate, and signals to philosophers my analytic training. It doesn’t mean that I am unfamiliar with the discussion of the terms used in plural. Nor does my analytic background mean that I am hostile to pluralism in philosophy. 🙂

I recognize that all academics make choices that determine how our time is used, but my point here is about the system advantage accrued to non-disabled academics. These people are advantaged by current systems and structures in academia — this impacts those of us who are disadvantaged because we are measured on their yardstick of time consumption, not ours.

When women faculty started entering the academy in larger numbers, they challenged the time penalty of the tenure clock for women faculty who bore children during the tenure track years. The constraints of the biological time clock exacerbated this problem. Some institutions responded to this temporal inequity by offering parental leave and the option to stop the tenure clock. Many still do not.

Disabled academics don’t have a big life event like childbirth to mark the temporal impact of disability on our academic careers. The multi-vocality of disability doesn’t help, either, nor does the highly variable nature of the time expended. So this is a harder problem to address that doesn’t come with an easy solution.

As an illustration, a few years ago I gave talks at two universities in the same town — one was a state school with a limited budget, the other an Ivy League school with an annual budget exceeding that of many countries. Interpreter expenses for each talk came to about $180.00, which included prep time prior to my talk.

Now, the time involved for me in locating and vetting (domestic) interpreters is pretty similar across the board — some locales may take me a few hours more because I’m less familiar with the interpreting community, but I can usually predict how much time to set aside for that. What I cannot predict is how much time to spend on dealing with the universities or other academic organizations. In the case of the two universities mentioned above, one took 3 emails to resolve (my detailed request, university response and confirmation, then my response) and the other took close to 200 emails. Contrary to what you might think, the wealthy university was obstructionist; the impoverished state university, expedient.

Now, consider not just the time involved in emailing, but the research involved in getting information about the institutional budget and institutional structure; looking for allies, including other deaf academics who had worked with this institution; looking up institutional policies and law (state and federal); plus consulting with lawyer friends and academic friends about what to do.

Consider the lost hours of research time that a R1 university inflicted on my career. Now multiply that by countless other instances. It is far more common to accumulate a count of double digit emails in disability accommodations discourse than it is single digits; triple digits are not that unusual, and occur more in my experience than single digit rounds.

Consider also that I have written documents that detail, in one single-spaced page, my interpreting needs as a deaf philosopher, and the time that it took to craft this document — a timesaver now, but it only saves me time in locating the right interpreters, not in fighting the institutional bureaucracy over whether it is obligated to pay, and if so, which budgetary unit should pay.

Consider also that I was untenured, the Ivy invitation was a feather in my cap and would signal to the tenure and promotion committee that my work was valued outside of my own institution, and that filing, or even threatening to file a Department of Justice claim against the institution could damage my career and reputation, possibly irreparably.

Disabled and Deaf academics who agitate against injustice injudiciously don’t get tenure.



In one regard, I am very lucky.

My academic appointment is at an institution, Gallaudet University, that has a critical mass of Deaf academics, probably the largest concentration of such anywhere. It is a place where all of my Deaf faculty peers, and many of my Hearing faculty peers, as well as our academic administration, know the impact of disability advocacy accommodation time on deaf academics, and especially on Deaf solitaire academics, who are sometimes the only signing deaf academic in their discipline in the world.

Midway through my tenure years, as I grew more frustrated by the impact of building infrastructure in my discipline as a Deaf solitaire on my research time, I successfully argued to my administration and my department that the work I was doing to educate my professional peers (and their institutions) about their legal obligations was a necessary condition to my participation in the research activities that were required for my tenure. I argued that my time spent on these activities (e.g. the toll of 200 emails when three would have sufficed), should count as part of my research output. I also successfully argued that in cases where I could not participate because of time running out due to institutional obstruction (not my institution, but other universities and conference organizers), that my institution should pick up the tab of my interpreters so that I could participate and not be penalized due to my status as a signing Deaf academic, even though the primary responsibility to provide accommodations rested with the institution hosting the event, not Gallaudet University.

And yes, figuring out what the problem was, and how to articulate it also took up time. Just in case I wasn’t successful, I also made sure that I would exceed the research activity metrics using the yardstick set by my institution based on Hearing academic norms.

Back to time and Deaf academics…

In this age of analytics and metrics and the evidence-based university, we can point to some things (like the number of emails) as a measure of the impact on the Deaf or disabled academic’s time. We can, if the evidence exists, also point to the difference in the time spent on accessing information (the currency of our realm), whether it be the ability to take in chunks visual information more rapidly than other modes or the inaccessibility of written text for people with print disabilities or the lack of captioning on videos for us and our students. (Auto-captioning doesn’t cut it.)

We can look at the norms of the academy and the standards for tenure, which are predicated on the able-bodied, Hearing academic — not so unlike the tenure path before the notion of stopping the tenure clock for first maternity, then parental leave, arose. And then we can ask ourselves why it is that Deaf and disabled academics are so few in our academies.

Why, indeed?


I began my post with a dedication;  I would be remiss if I didn’t end with an acknowledgment of thanks to the dozens of academics Deaf, disabled and Hearing, who have supported the hidden labor of Deaf and disabled academics everywhere. Thank you!


Updated to fix a mess of typos. I think I got them all?




Posted in Deaf philosophers, disability accessibility, disability accommodations, impact of time, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

Motions of Grief (Memoir)

It has been a long time since I’ve worked on my memoir. The pursuit of tenure and promotion, and a bit of a health crisis swerve last September threw me off track. I’m finally feeling like writing again, and put these words down today. I’d say “happy reading”, but it’s hardly happy going. Best approached as a reflection of sorts about groping for the uncommon role of widowed new mother — there’s no etiquette book advice on how to combine these roles. As you’ll read, I flubbed the conflation rather badly! (Also, each time I tried to put this in the first person, I hit a road block, so for now it’s a step removed. I think that’s telling in itself…)

She tells everybody he died, but only when they ask about her son’s father.

Most people just assume she is the nanny, acknowledging the impossibility of the boy’s tow-headedness against the mother’s Mediterranean coloring; others see the mother’s smile in the son’s.

She stops telling people about being a widow after an experience on a small propeller plane ride to Cody, Wyoming on Christmas Day. Her four-month old son is squirming in her arms, and she nurses him through the take-off. The man sitting next to her avoids looking at her baby, suckling with loud gasps and coos, until the boy is fast asleep and she has refastened the clip of her nursing bra, one-handed, under her blouse. At that time, the man, noting the wedding ring on her left hand, says, “Are you flying to see grandma?”

She replies, “No, we’re headed to see grandpa.”

The man asks, “Did Daddy have to work on Christmas?”

She speaks bluntly, without thinking, “No, Daddy’s dead.”

It isn’t until she sees the man’s stunned look that she realizes she has committed a social faux pas of sorts. Death should be spoken of in euphemisms, and hushed tones, and with an expression she hasn’t mastered yet. One should look away and down, and perhaps falter over the words, as though they are hard to believe. Baldly stating her widowhood in the same tone as she expressed her preference for pretzels over peanuts to the flight attendant is a social misstep that she, great-granddaughter of the society editor of the Orange Daily News, should have known to avoid.

By the time she realizes what she has said, the man has recovered and composed his features back into that neutral mask that men cultivate and master in adolescence. He expresses his condolences, and asks, “How did he die?”

She has told this story so many times that it has frozen into a fable. There is the setting (ironically, near Death Valley), and the characters, the explosion, and the mystery. She tells it with little grief, reciting the details of the dining room hutch that holds artifacts from their gold mine instead of fine china, the gully (never an arroyo), the use of black powder as the technical name for an explosive, and not simply a description or appearance.

She recites the fate of the two survivors, and then waits. What comes next is the pedestal-ization of bravery. Young widows are sad and silently heroic. She feels neither of these, but simply numb. A baby needs to be fed and diapered and held.

These are the motions of grief.

Posted in Memoir | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

A Quiet Rainy Night at 7th and H NW

Heading into work yesterday, I reached up to adjust my glasses and my fingertips came away wet. I hadn’t noticed until then that tears were spilling out of my eyes. Hours before that, I had posted an article and photograph to my Facebook wall showing Eric Garner in a chokehold.

I cried as I wrote the image description to provide access to my blind friends. Writing the description somehow made it seem even more heartwrenching, as if that were possible.

I cried as I shampooed my hair during my morning shower.

I skipped putting on my cruelty-free mascara for the third day in a row. (I knew it would be washed away before noon, as it had earlier in the week when I did apply it.)

I cried as I drove to the Metro parking garage, and surreptitiously wiped my eyes while seated on the subway train.

It’s been that kind of week — a week starting with numbness, moving into sadness, and coalescing into rage: carefully calibrated, righteously indignant rage.

I’ve been watching friends and colleagues articulate their shock and anger about the recent grand jury decisions on Facebook and Twitter, and noticing something I cannot yet name unfold as friends and family who are politically to the right of me expressed their outrage about Eric Garner’s death. It is too early to say, but I wonder if this is the beginning of a sea change in awareness taking place.

I am cautiously hopeful. But I am also realistic about the glacial pace of real social change.

I’m composing this in the Starbucks café at the corner of H Street and 7th Street in Washington DC; this intersection has been the site of protests for the past few days. When I arrived at dusk, there were a few police cars and several uniformed officers strategically placed on street corners.

I walked here in the rain from Union Station, where a staged die-in took place in the lobby earlier today.

For days I have been trying to figure out what I want to say, and not succeeding at putting together anything more than a fragmented series of thoughts from the past week.

I am not alone. I have noticed the absence of social commentary from others who live with the daily reality of the impact of racial profiling on themselves and their family members. I have wondered if the reason for their silence mirrors my own.

I did find some words as I lectured to my students in their final class of the term about the role of the state and death (this has been a theme throughout the course), pulling together bits about the bystander effect, Elizabeth Anderson’s The Imperative of Integration, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and Amadou Diallo. My students responded vividly and with passion. I’m so grateful for them.

That night I walked to the Metro with a colleague. As we walked, we spoke (in ASL) about the events of the past weeks, including local protests by DC area students and the silence about this issue on our campus, which we both agreed was not a silence borne of apathy, but of pain. That recognition helped me to understand why I was having such a difficult time putting words together.

Acknowledging this issue publicly means facing something that I normally keep locked away: the pain of watching people you love be racially profiled and the fear of the consequences that might follow.

When you are part of a racially and ethnically diverse family this becomes part of the fabric of your everyday life. Compartmentalization helps you function.

But I still haven’t figured out how to respond.

What does one say in response to watching people you love experience humiliation and frustration and fear as the police aggressively question them in front of your children?

How can one ever be prepared to explain to your children that the reason you were pulled over at police gunpoint one night during your family summer vacation by more than half a dozen police officers was because of race and ethnicity?

What is the right way to respond when the police separate parents from their light-skinned child to question him in the small town restaurant where you are dining with your family, just to be sure you are not kidnapping him?

How does one describe, let alone live with, the visceral fear of worrying that the much delayed return home from work of your family member – who is so prompt you could set your clock by him – could mean that he is never ever coming home?

I still don’t know what to say or how to say it, but I do know that I start with this:

Black lives matter.

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Death’s Valley Days: Prologue (Memoir)

Chapter 1: The Diamond in the Door (excerpt)

I had just put Austin down for the night, an hour before midnight, when my mother popped her head in the bedroom and said, “There’s a policeman knocking at the door.”

A few weeks earlier the city police department had conducted a SWAT team exercise at the vacant house down the street. Given that the police department was just around the corner from our house, I thought perhaps they were making neighborhood rounds to notify us about something. (I had just birthed a baby thirteen days prior — my critical thinking skills were blunted by new motherhood and sleep deprivation.)

I padded to the door barefoot, still marveling with each step that I was no longer pregnant, no longer waddling, and that I could once again see my toes as I walked.

It’s hard to know what sensate experiences will become memories, and what is destined for the dust bunnies of time, but I vividly remember the front door of our Craftsman style bungalow on West Wilshire Avenue.

It was about six inches wider than the standard house door, and the interior side was covered in matte brown paint — the color of fallen acorns that have been kicked around a few months. The door had scuff marks, too. There was a diamond shaped window at eye height, making it possible to see who was standing at the door. If you stood off to the side and looked at it, you could see the waves that rippled across the surface. Our house was close to a hundred years old; the window’s liquid glass evidence of the original packaging.

I peered through the window, and saw a middle-aged man with drooping jowls. He wore gold-rimmed glasses and a uniform; no cap. The badge on his chest looked authentic, but I was a new mother who had suddenly grown protective and cautious.

“Are you Mrs. Jonathan Burke?” he asked. I didn’t actually hear him, instead, I speechread his lips through the glass. Fortunately, he was clean-shaven.

“Yes”, I replied (through the glass).

“May I come in?”


“May I come in, please, Mrs. Burke?” His use of the “Mrs.” rankled. I had decided to keep my birth name, and I certainly had no plans to use an honorific that would identify me as married.

Slightly annoyed, I countered, “Show me your badge.”

He held his badge up to the window. It looked real enough, but I realized then that identifying law enforcement badges for authenticity was something that I’d never learned in high school. Maybe that life skill was taught after I dropped out my senior year. I shrugged and opened the door, poking my head out to see what he had to say.

“May I come in please, Mrs. Burke?”


“I have something to tell you about your husband, Jonathan Burke.”

The light dawned.

It had finally happened — Jonathan’s activism on the anti-smoking campaign had landed him in jail. No doubt he’d lost his cool and punched out a smoker, and the cop was here to let me know. But just as that thought raced through my head, a competing thought cancelled it out: policemen don’t go to someone’s house to notify them that a loved one has been jailed. They go to someone’s house to notify them of…

I yanked the door open, demanding, “What’s happened to my husband? Is he okay?”

The policeman crossed the threshold, “Please sit down, Mrs. Burke.”

I stepped backwards, keeping my eyes on his face so I wouldn’t miss a word. “What’s happened to my husband? Is he dead?”

The policeman waited for me to sit on the couch, and followed suit, sitting down in front of me. “Mrs. Burke, I regret to tell you that your husband Jonathan Burke has died in an accident.”

I looked at him. Hard. “That can’t be right. We just had a baby!”

Out of the corner of my eye I saw my mother at the desk, reaching for the phone to call my father.

“I’m afraid so, Mrs. Burke. I am very sorry for your loss.”

“What… What happened?”

“I don’t have much information, Mrs. Burke. There was an explosion, and he died. Here is my card; on the back of it is the Inyo County coroner’s phone number. Call him. He’ll have more information.”

Reading the card, I noted that he was a member of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, not a cop from around the corner. The county seal was on the card – three oranges and Saddleback Mountain in the background. Was that real gold leaf on the seal? How fitting. Gold, to go with our gold mine in the Panamints, the western range of Death Valley.

I noticed the deputy sheriff’s hands holding the card. Calloused and rough, they were spotted with freckles, or maybe age spots. Taking the card, I looked up, stared at his eyes through his bifocals. They were kind, marked with laugh lines in the corners. This couldn’t be easy for him, I realized.

I glanced over at my mother on the phone, talking to my father. She had an expression on her face that I’d never seen before. Later I identified it as a mother’s anguish, but at the time, it just puzzled me. She hung up the phone and sat down next to me.

“You won’t be alone tonight, will you, Mrs. Burke?”

I shook my head. “No, my son is here with me. He’s thirteen days old, did I tell you that?”

My mother added, “I’ll be here with her.” Turning to me, she said, “Dad is on his way.”

Just then Austin cried out.

I sprang to the bedroom to get him. Picking him up, I held him tightly. I whispered, “Daddy’s gone, Austin. Daddy’s gone. What are we going to do?” Flicking down my maternity bra flap with a practiced hand, I positioned him at my breast, still standing.

When we returned to the living room, the sheriff was gone.

And so was Jonathan.

Posted in Memoir | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

Cochlear Implants, Viral Videos, and Sexism

(This post first appeared on the Feminist Philosophers blog on March 29, 2014)

Once again a video of the miracle of hearing via cochlear implants has gone viral. I find this bothersome, but not for the reasons you might think, given that I’m a member of the signing Deaf* community, a bioethicist, and philosopher. Instead, I’m annoyed by the framing of the cochlear implant narratives and the gendered aspects of cochlear implant videos that go viral. Continue reading

Posted in cochlear implant videos, cochlear implants, Feminist Philosophers blog posts, intersectionality, intersectionality - deaf, language acquisition, viral videos | Leave a comment