ST. ALBANS — She may not be able to hear, but Mechelle Palmer wants the world to know: She can do whatever she sets her mind to.
Palmer, a 39-year-old St. Albans resident, is deaf. She was born that way to her two hearing parents in Keene, N.H., where, at the time, there were no schools for the deaf or hard of hearing. Palmer had a tutor and learned American Sign Language (ASL) enough to communicate with her parents, who could also sign, before the age of two, and she soon went to Austine School for the Deaf in Brattleboro.
“I had a good foundation of education at a very young age,” Palmer said in an interview, conducted with Burlington-based interpreter Lynette Reep at Northwestern Counseling & Support Services (NCSS), last week. “I was very fortunate.”
Palmer now lives with her husband, St. Albans native Michael, 43, who also attended the Austine School, and the couple’s two children: Yazmin, 19, and Chaz, 15, both of whom are deaf. Palmer is a deaf interpreter, administrative assistant, and interpreter service coordinator at NCSS, and she has also begun working on completing her bachelor’s degree through the Community College of Vermont (CCV).
Palmer said she lives a full life, one that is unencumbered by her and her family’s inability to hear thanks to technology and legislation that make everything they need accessible.
“I never feel sad or frustrated that I’m deaf,” she said. “There’s nothing abnormal about me – I have my own culture and I have my own life.”
Palmer added, “Deaf people can do anything except hear.”
In general, Palmer said she was fortunate growing up with all the resources she had available to her. Occasionally there were times where she felt limited, like when her parents would talk at the dinner table without signing, or when her mother told her she shouldn’t try to get involved in theater – but being educated among deaf peers and with deaf adults meant Palmer could effectively learn and socialize.
“It’s really critical that you take advantage of those milestones and learning opportunities,” said Palmer.
The situation in which deaf or hearing-impaired students attend public schools and work with an interpreter can be restrictive, said Palmer, since a lot of academic information may get lost in translation, and making friends is difficult when an interpreter is the only other person who can truly communicate with a deaf child.
Palmer didn’t have that experience, however. She began at the Austine School in 1979, and she stayed there for 11 years. In 1990, Palmer transferred to the Model Secondary School for the Deaf (MSSD) in Washington, D.C., where she finished high school in 1993.
At MSSD, where she met students from all over the world and found that D.C. restaurants, museums, public services and other resources were very accessible to the deaf, Palmer’s began to see a much wider world.
“[Before], I had this idea that deaf people weren’t as capable or as able to be successful,” Palmer said. “Many, many people sign in the D.C. area. It’s a deaf Mecca.”
Palmer said her experience at MSSD allowed her to approach things with a “can do” attitude, propelling her to attend a summer theater program at Northwestern University in Illinois where she was the only deaf participant.
“That was just an incredibly eye-opening experience,” Palmer said. She added that none of the other program participants paid attention to her until the second day, when she had to put on a skit.
“I had to get up and perform for people to wanted to come talk to me,” she said. From that point on, she was just another theater kid.
Taking on the world
Palmer continues to have a go-getter outlook on life and what her abilities are. As one of only a handful of deaf people in Franklin County, she continues to try new things and meet others, and in particular Palmer loves to travel.
“I love meeting new people, especially from other countries,” Palmer said. She added that it’s easier for her and the other deaf people she meets from around the world to talk to each other – signing languages, though distinct, are generally more universal than spoken languages.
“We are very adept at gesturing,” said Palmer. “It’s one of the really big advantages,” she said.
Palmer is soon to embark on the first international all-deaf cruise in October. Everyone on the cruise ship will be deaf except the crew, the members of which have had to train for two years in ASL to prepare for the trip.
“It’s a really big deal,” said Palmer.
In addition, Palmer said she also likes meeting deaf refugees from areas of conflict. In meeting refugees, referred to her through NCSS, Palmer has learned that people coming from other countries often are limited because they are deaf – not being able to access as much education, own houses, or do tasks others can.
“You’re dealing with people who have been oppressed their whole lives,” said Palmer. “They [are] so blown away seeing the way we live.”
Palmer added that because of the technology and resources available today – flashing lights to indicate doorbells or fire alarms, video-phones, closed captioning, live or video interpreters that doctor’s offices, interviewers, and others are required to provide through the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and workplaces like NCSS that require employees to know basic ASL – there aren’t many barriers for those who cannot hear. Palmer said she can go about her business pretty freely.
“If you look back, it was much harder on deaf people when we didn’t have all the technology we have,” Palmer said. “Life is pretty accessible at this point.”
Advantages & challenges
The fact that people still look at her and others who are deaf or hard of hearing and feel they are limited is frustrating, she said.
“I feel like there are people who meet me and say, ‘Aw, that’s too bad, she’s deaf,’” said Palmer. “And I’m like, no.”
In fact, Palmer said there are a good number of advantages to not relying on sound for information. Talking at a distance (with sign language), for instance, can be useful – it’s a great way to talk underwater, Palmer pointed out – and she also said deaf people are generally better drivers, noticing more visually.
“Deaf people actually have better accident records than non-deaf people,” she said. “We’re very perceptive that way.”
When people try to playfully sneak up on Palmer at work at NCSS, she always catches them out of the corner of her eye or with the mirrors placed in her office. “I’m like sorry, I’ve got mirrors everywhere,” Palmer said, smiling.
Running errands and going into places of business where people don’t know ASL is not usually a problem either. “We just write notes,” Palmer said. “Or, you know, you can point.”
In addition, Palmer said she’s a very adept lip reader, and her husband, Michael, can speak fairly clearly. Together, the couple does well navigating with those who can’t sign.
“We’re a great team,” Palmer said.
Despite the manifest ease with which Palmer and others who are deaf can function with the right technology or educational background, Palmer said there are barriers to overcome.
“Society has a very medical view of deafness,” she said. “All they see is the ear and it not functioning.” Palmer added that hearing people saying someone is “hearing impaired” is like a deaf person saying someone is “signing impaired” – one of the two communication abilities shouldn’t limit someone from living life like anyone else, though it often can.
For instance, Palmer said NCSS is one of the only workplaces in Northern Vermont that hires deaf people for a variety of positions, some providing for deaf clients and some not. There are 10 deaf employees there, including Palmer, who has been with the service for six years.
“I just wish other employers would hire deaf people,” Palmer said. “Kudos to NCSS for really stepping up to the plate that way. NCSS is really good with diversity in general – people are very supportive, very open.”
In other instances, Palmer said deaf people are often chosen second over someone who can hear. At an accident scene, Palmer said investigators often don’t bring in an interpreter to consult deaf people for facts or information, but just rely on those they can communicate with aurally.
In addition, all-deaf education opportunities are fairly limited in Vermont, and the Austine School just closed this past April. Palmer said it is increasingly difficult to find education opportunities that aren’t restrictive of deaf children, causing many parents to send their children to schools out of state.
Palmer also mentioned that there used to be a state outreach and education position in the Department of Disabilities, Aging, and Independent Living to advocate for the deaf and hard of hearing, but the position is no longer in existence, limiting the Vermont community’s knowledge of deafness.
“The person left and the position was never re-filled,” said Palmer. “It would just be so nice to have that position again.”
She added, “We don’t blame the hearing community for being uninformed. You don’t know what you don’t know.”
Communication is key
Palmer wants those who aren’t familiar with the lives people who are deaf or hard of hearing to know: it’s OK to ask.
“I think the important thing is that people aren’t afraid to ask questions,” she said. “The more you ask, the more you learn.”
Asking, learning, and communicating are Palmer’s love and interest, and she lives it out through being a deaf interpreter. She’s currently working on her bachelor’s degree through CCV’s Assessment Prior Learning program, where the school takes into account her previous professional experience in order to determine her college curriculum.
Palmer said she’d like to get a degree in interpreting, something she’ll most likely have to transfer for since it’s offered at very few schools. She’s also working on attaining her National Interpreter Certification through the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.
“It’s my passion,” she said.
In the meantime, Palmer will continue working as an uncertified deaf interpreter, a service she said is useful in a variety of circumstances in order to get the clearest message across.
“I’m always double checking [what’s being said],” Palmer said. “That’s really, really important for me.”
While Palmer may work with deaf clients who are from another country or have a disability, she may also team with a hearing interpreter in a situation with a local and able deaf person where more complex or vital information, such as in a medical, advanced academic, or legal situation, is being conveyed.
“There are so many different applications,” said Palmer.
She added, “For me, communication is everything. I want to make sure everybody has an equal voice.”