Interview: Tara Cranston, Alum, and Francine Menendez-Aponte, FSU Staff Interpreter Coordinator
One of the most common, and yet least understood disabilities that can form in humans is Deafness. The World Health Organization (WHO) has found that “over 5% of the world’s population – or 466 million people – has disabling hearing loss," and estimates that by 2050 that number will increase to 900 million, or 10% (“Deafness and Hearing Loss”). Yet despite this incredibly large number of affected people, many who do not personally know someone who is Deaf know very little about how they live their lives. In an effort to change this, Tara Cranston, an alumni of Fitchburg State University, shares her story and her experiences with Deafness and its accompanying stigmas. She does this through the help of her friend Francine Mendez-Aponte, who works in the Disabilities Services Office at FSU, and translated Tara’s answers to a series of questions.
I found my interview with Tara and Francine to be a really interesting and different approach to talking about disability. More often than not, when you read or see something about someone who has a disability, it’s from an outside perspective observing the person with a disability. This viewpoint often creates a victim image in the mind of the viewer. It makes you see people with disabilities as “lesser” or “unfortunate.” I think creating this mindset is detrimental to the people they are trying to help. By making people with disabilities seem unable to take care of themselves, it reduces their humanity, and I would argue that it is this that causes the eventual decay of every attempt to help people with disabilities throughout history. It’s not an intentional change, and I admit that I had a similar mindset at some points in my life, as that was the only kind of thinking I had seen. However, after sitting and talking to Tara and hearing her responses to some of my questions, I realized that I had made assumptions about people with disabilities and what I thought their needs were. Some of the answers Tara gave were options and ideas that I had never even considered. I wouldn’t have considered the possibility that a person with Deafness could become a college professor. I learned that many Deaf people, including Tara, don’t consider their Deafness to be a disability, just a difference. The idea of working from home, that I was sure beforehand would be a perfect solution, definitely would not work for everyone with Deafness or another disability. This is the main reason I decided to transcribe and include the interview instead of paraphrasing and discussing what was said to a third party. I want readers to be able to read Tara’s thoughts directly. While it’s not as good as actually talking in person, I believe it is more important for people to hear her thoughts about Deafness rather than mine. This is the biggest problem in discussing disability in today’s world. We all want to help and are giving our thoughts about how best to do so, while the people we are supposed to be helping go largely unheard.
Note: All quotes from Tara are Francine’s interpretations
Question: So, what’s your story?
Tara: I’m from Leominster; that’s where I grew up. I went to a school for the Deaf out of town, Framingham, and basically did all of my schooling there. I skipped a grade in high school, so I graduated at seventeen. Then I went to Rochester Institute of Technology for a summer program, came back, went to Mount Wachusett Community College. I had some issues with trying to get interpreters there, so it took me a while longer to graduate than expected. Sometimes with interpreters, sometimes without interpreters, so occasionally I’d only be taking one or two classes, depending on if there were interpreters available. I finally graduated with my associates and transferred to Fitchburg State, so I have a Bachelor's degree. I finished that in just two years. I worked in human services for a while. I’m married, and I have four kids, and now I’m a stay-at-home mom.
Question: What kind of challenges do you face in everyday life? How do you overcome them?
Tara: Communication, for sure, is a challenge. It’s definitely a barrier. Lots of people aren’t willing to even write down in English what they want to communicate to me. It’s very hard to lip read, you know, and people will be like, "Oh, I don’t have any paper, I don’t have any pen, forget it." People aren’t always willing to sort of just go, not even an extra mile, but even a little bit more. So one example of that is that if we’re going out to eat with the kids, I’m not expecting my kids to order everything for us, and so I’ll write down what it is that we want to order. For some people, you know, they kind of get frustrated with that, but I don’t think it’s my kids’ responsibility to interpret for me when we’re out at restaurants. People should be willing to write something down, or if I’m writing it down, be able to read it and understand it. I own my own home, and we don’t have a doorbell with a light because it’s kind of expensive. There are certain things that [Deaf people] need in your house, like a fire alarm that’s visual as opposed to auditory, and they can be really expensive. The doorbell is like $300 to have a visual doorbell, so I tend to leave my door unlocked. People who know me will come in and kind of wave to me to say, "Hey, I’m here." If the door is locked, then people know that we’re busy, or not available, and if it’s strangers, they’ll knock at the door because they don’t know our system, and the kids will just ignore it; they won’t answer it because they know. We do have a dog, and the dog will run to the door, and see who’s there, so then if that happens I walk over and check to see who’s there.
Question: What challenges did you face in your education [at FSU]?
Tara: Academically, math was definitely a struggle for me, so I had a tutor for that class. Sometimes interpreters were available, sometimes not. I think back then, we had one interpreter for three students, so sometimes we would have to take notes to write back and forth to each other in a tutoring situation, and if I didn’t get it, I would typically ask a professor. I have very good English skills, but for some folks, to write back and forth with each other they might not be as comfortable, so it could become a little bit complicated that way. Previously here, there weren’t certified interpreters initially when I started here. There was one person who had done an interpreter training program, but they were not certified. So you’d have someone who learned some sign language, but has not actually trained and did not pass the tests that are required to be an interpreter, so I made sure that I would read through everything. Sometimes there were gaps in that information, where the person who was signing in that class was not necessarily getting all the information because they weren’t trained to do that.
Question: How do people normally react to your disability?
Tara (laughs): It really varies. Some people who are easy to lip read, I can lip read them, and can usually get to be friendly with them if they’re someone I see on a regular basis. Some people are just like, "What do you mean you’re Deaf, you’re Deaf?" and if they talk very softly, or if they’re hard to lip read, then that’s going to be very difficult. Sometimes, they’ll just kind of leave. I don’t take that personally. But some people are really willing to try, to gesture. I find that, when people who gesture a lot with their hands, they’re sort of willing to try a little bit more.”
Question: If you could change or make something to help people who are Deaf, what would it be?
Tara: Similar to the idea of closed captioning, I’m talking about in a classroom situation, if the teacher could speak, and then it would be almost like speech recognition software that I could look at on a screen and be able to understand what it was they were saying. I think that something like that would be helpful, but would also have to be for a person that has good English skills as well as for a Deaf person, because for most Deaf people English isn’t their first language. Ideally, having interpreters, and making sure that that person is a certified interpreter, that they are qualified to do the job. It’s tough when there’s information missing out of a conversation.
Note: These next questions were posed to both Tara and Francine.
Question: How accommodating is Fitchburg State for people with disabilities?
Tara: It’s definitely better now than it was before, for sure. There are more staff here, there is more training happening for the staff that are here.
Francine: I’ve been here twenty years, almost twenty years (Tara laughs), that’s when Tara first got here. Our campus' physical accessibility has improved dramatically. You can get into pretty much every building, if you need physical access. One of the exceptions is still Thompson...on the third floor there are two stairs that go up, and then across, and there are classrooms on either side, then a couple of stairs that go down. So you can’t access the rooms on the other end from the elevator. Sometimes still, the sidewalks are not great, we [Francine and Tara] walked today from the Civic Center to here, and you know if you’ve walked it that the end closest to Mckay is not good... And I know that that is an ongoing issue with the university and the city because it’s technically in city property. I would say that we could definitely improve on the Rec Center with equipment that’s more accessible to people with physical disabilities.
Question: What do you think could be done better?
Francine: I think now we’re in a good place of providing accommodations for students. We also now have two Deaf professors, one in the theater program and another in a Deaf Studies minor we have now. In the Deaf Studies minor, they have ASL classes as well as an introduction to Deaf culture of course, too. I think those are great ways for people to be more familiar with Deaf people and more comfortable with Deaf people.
Tara: Previously Mount Wachusett Community College was the only place close to here that had American Sign Language classes, so it’s nice that they are offered here now too.
Question: How does that work with the professors? How do the students understand?
Tara: They use interpreters so they’re using them in the way most people are not familiar with. Usually it’s a Deaf student who we think the accommodation is for, when really the accommodation is for both. Typically in American Sign Language classes, you’d have an interpreter for the first class because after that you really want to become fluent in the language.
Question: What’s something you wish more people knew about disabilities?
Tara: Deaf people are normal. We live very full lives like everybody else. We get married. We have children. We have jobs. We drive. We cook. We do everything that people who can hear do, and the only thing is that we don’t hear. We can typically feel the rhythm or the vibration of music. We may not know the words, but the only limitation that Deaf people have is that they don’t hear. My guess is that other people with disabilities might feel similarly, and I think that, like anybody else, people with disabilities want people to not be critical of them and try to understand them. Understand who they are, that we’re people just like everybody else.”
Question: What can strangers do to help?
Tara: Hire people that are Deaf or have disabilities. I’ve been for job interviews previously, and when I walk in they’re like, "Oh, you’re Deaf." I could have a great amount of experience, a degree, and they say, "Oh, yeah, you know, it’s just too much to have to write back and forth with you." I think people get concerned about communication, and sometimes companies are just not flexible. I think by saying, "You’re overqualified," that’s how they get away with it, because legally they cannot say, "Oh, we can’t hire you because you’re Deaf."
Question: Would you say that working from home and the internet would help with that?
Tara: I would say no, actually. Some of the work from home options that are out there might require you to put some money in up front if it's a business venture or something. You also have to be very focused if you’re going to work from home. For me I need to get outside. For me at home it would be too distracting being home and trying to work all day. It would be better to be out and about and doing things.
Tara Cranston, lifelong resident of Leominster, graduated from both MWCC and FSC (now FSU).
“Deafness and Hearing Loss.” World Health Organization, 1 Mar. 2020, www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/deafness-and-hearing-loss.
“Hearing Problems and Deafness | Hearing Loss.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2 Oct. 2019, medlineplus.gov/hearingdisordersanddeafness.html.