Juana F.: Growing Up Deaf in the Public School System

Juana F.Somewhere in Southern California, Juana grew up in a home filled with books. In high school, her father would bring home “heavy” books about the political climate in Central America (he was a university professor). Her childhood was spent playing outdoors and reading in her bedroom, where she spent a large chunk of her time and where she felt most comfortable. A proofreader and copy editor by trade, Juana can annoy people with her incessant questions. She still dreams of following in the footsteps of the inimitable Studs Terkel.


Imagine being the only deaf member in your family. How do you find a way to communicate if no one knows sign language? In my case, I learned how to speak and lip read. From the time of my diagnosis, at age four, this was my way of adapting to the world at large, and especially at home. But life at home was much easier than being at school.

After being mainstreamed in fourth grade, I became isolated. I knew I wasn’t like the other kids so I tried my darndest to blend in. It wasn’t easy making friends, but I befriended Doug, who was really sweet and patient when communicating with me. When he smiled and laughed at me, I couldn’t see his eyes, and that made me laugh. When I broke my left wrist from playing on the rings (holy hell, that HURT LIKE FUCK), I got a kick out of striking Doug on the arm with my cast. I might not have really understood him but that didn’t seem to matter.

Doug’s kindness was important to me because I was bullied relentlessly by the other deaf students. Even though I was able to communicate with them, it wasn’t good enough. If you think they accepted me as one of their own, you’re wrong. In fact, they were even worse bullies than the hearing kids. One day, they’d pretend to be my friend and throw around my shoulders the warmth blanket of their friendship and the next day, they’d shun me, signing the word “hate,” all behind the teacher’s back so she never knew what was going on. It didn’t occur to me to talk to the teacher about it.

By junior high school, I became depressed. I so dreaded going to school that I would vomit every morning. It became so that my parents became concerned. Mama, being a kindergarten teacher, would sit with me in the morning and write down goals for the day, like “Today, I will make a new friend” written out on a large index card. But my depression continued, unabated. Because I feared the large crowds outside during lunchtime and didn’t feel safe being alone, I would eat lunch in the restroom (yes, gross) and then stay in the library until the bell rang.

I didn’t know it at the time but I suffered from communication fatigue. Ian Noon’s words almost made me weep; I always felt guilty because I thought my weariness was because I wasn’t trying my best to earn good grades (I was an average student overall but in literature and the social sciences, I was well above average) and because I was lazy. The thought of being lazy just made me feel even guiltier. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I could finally understand that from the time of my diagnosis, my education was not going to be “complete,” because I did not have the full access I needed. It was as if intensive speech therapy and itinerant teachers were more important than having a sign language interpreter in my classes. The toughest work, of understanding and making sense of the overload of information, was all up to me to decipher.  

As Mr. Noon says, “We can change the world. But we might need a nap and a cuppa tea every once in a while, so don’t judge us.”

Lyn Miller-Lachmann: Separating Writer from Character

Lyn Miller-LachmannLyn Miller-Lachmann is the former editor-in-chief of MultiCultural Review and the author of resources for educators and fiction for teens. Her young adult novel Gringolandia (Curbstone Press/Northwestern University Press, 2009), about a teenage refugee from Chile coming to terms with his father’s imprisonment and torture under the Pinochet dictatorship, was a 2010 ALA Best Book for Young Adults and received an Américas Award Honorable Mention from the Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs. Her most recent novel is Rogue (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Books, 2013), a Junior Library Guild selection. When she isn’t writing fiction, Lyn is the co-host of a bilingual program of Latin American and Spanish music, poetry, and history on WRPI-FM, a blogger, and a Lego builder. She reviews children’s and young adult books on social justice themes for The Pirate Tree. For more information and cool Lego pictures, visit Lyn’s website.


Many writers yearn to turn their life stories into fiction.

I avoided it. While I understood the advice “write what you know,” I couldn’t bring myself to write about the person I had been in middle and high school—the weird girl nobody liked, the one other kids teased whenever they got bored.

In general, downtrodden characters don’t make interesting or appealing protagonists (at least until they take action to change the situation), and I didn’t want to relive those years anyway. However, when I received my diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism, seven years ago, I thought of all the young people today who face the social challenges and bullying that I faced decades earlier. I wanted to create a character like me, but one who fights back against the way others treat her in a way that I never did.

I started with an incident from middle school that still haunted me decades later. In seventh grade, I decided that I could become part of the popular girls’ group by sitting at their table at lunch. As soon as I set my tray down, all of the girls stopped talking. One of them stood and pushed my tray to the floor. I began to cry, and everyone around me laughed.

In Rogue, Kiara doesn’t just stand around crying. She picks up the tray and slams it into the girl’s face, thus getting herself suspended from school for the rest of the year. I wished I could have done that—both to get back at the girl who tormented me and to get out of going to a school I hated—but my parents were strict and they would have severely punished me. Kiara’s parents, on the other hand, are struggling economically, and her mother has to take a job in another city to support the family. Because her mother isn’t around, Kiara has a lot more freedom than I had to make decisions about her life—both good and bad.

Of course, Kiara isn’t me but a character I created, a character whose actions I control the way I control the actions, say, of a doll or a LEGO minifigure. However, characters tend to take on their own life in the story, as they interact with other characters and with the setting. For the first ten years of my life, I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in a sprawling city in the South, after which my family moved to an upscale suburb. Kiara lives in a working-class rural New England community across the river from a wealthier college town. Rogue takes place in 2006, long after my own middle school years.

These differences of setting and family situation helped me to separate Kiara’s story from my own. In addition, I wanted her to be bilingual and bicultural, which I am not (although I have a decent command of Spanish and Portuguese, acquired later in life). That is an important reason why she hasn’t yet been diagnosed at a time in which our awareness of Asperger’s and autism is much greater than it was when I was growing up. Her parents have their own difficulties communicating because her mother speaks Spanish primarily and her father only speaks English. People who aren’t aware of the research on bilingual language development might believe that growing up with two languages spoken at home led to Kiara’s temporary muteness in kindergarten (which happened to me as well in early elementary school even though I grew up in an monolingual household). At the same time, Kiara’s experience of two languages helps her to understand people and their emotions, as it did for me much later when I started learning Spanish in middle school.

For some of Kiara’s story, I had to do research because it wasn’t part of my experience. For example, while I appreciated the early X-Men for their focus on characters who were different and rejected by society, the lack of female role models meant I didn’t actually become a fan the way Kiara is. I had to do research to find out about the X-Men characters Rogue and Gambit because they didn’t exist when I was growing up.

Basically, I wove my experiences into the creation of my main character, but she isn’t me.  She isn’t even a twenty-first century version of me. She has taken on a life of her own, because she is the product of parents who are very different from mine, she lives in a community that is very different from mine, and the people around her with whom she interacts—like Chad and Brandon and Antonio—aren’t the people I knew when I was that age.

I wrote Rogue because I wanted some good to come out of my suffering in middle and high school. However, I didn’t want to present my experiences in the form of an autobiography or a memoir. My life was lonely and boring, and I didn’t make much effort to change my situation even when presented with the opportunity. At the same time, my status as an outsider looking into a world I struggled to understand and join honed my powers of observation and my imagination. I imagined what could have happened, say, had I picked up the tray and slammed it into my tormentor’s face. It took me decades to find my voice as a writer—what I consider my special power—but I know what it felt like when I did. I could transfer that feeling to my character, who finds a very different special power over the six-week time frame of the novel.

That is the advantage of fiction. The writer isn’t wedded to the truth. We can change the truth in service to the story. We should change the truth in service to the story, because the story always comes first. We can create characters that combine what we were like with what we wish we were like. If we didn’t make good choices, our characters give us a do-over. Our characters can make the spectacularly bad choices we didn’t make, face the consequences, and grow in the process of trying to recover or make amends. Finally, we can end our stories with hope, even if we didn’t discover that hope ourselves until many years later.


Cover for ROGUEThe poignant story of a girl coping with Asperger’s syndrome as she navigates the foreign territory of friendship…

Kiara has a difficult time making — and keeping — friends. She has Asperger’s syndrome, so relating to other people doesn’t come naturally. Most of the time, she relies on Mr. Internet — her go-to when the world doesn’t make sense, which is often — and her imagination, where she daydreams that she’s Rogue, one of the mutant superheroes of the X-Men. In the comics, Rogue hurts anyone she touches, but eventually learns to control her special power. Kiara hasn’t discovered her own special power yet, but when Chad moves in across the street, she hopes that, for once, she’ll be able to make friendship stick. She’s even willing to keep Chad’s horrible secret, if that’s what it takes. But being a true friend is complicated, and it might be just the thing that leads her to her special power.

Jamie Krakover: Lost in Translation

Jamie KrakoverGrowing up with a fascination for space and things that fly, Jamie turned that love into a career as an Aerospace Engineer. Combining her natural enthusiasm for Science Fiction and her love of reading, she now spends a lot of her time writing Middle Grade and Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Jamie lives in St. Louis, Missouri with her dog Sophie. When she isn’t being a Rocket Scientist by day and a writer by night, she can be found catching up on the latest sci fi TV, books, and movies as well as trolling Twitter. And no, the rocket science jokes never get old!

Follow Jamie on Twitter (@Rockets2Writing) and check out her Blog. She’s also a contributor at Middle Grade Minded.

 

When you look at me, you wouldn’t know anything was wrong. You’d think I was a well adjusted adult with a good job as an aerospace engineer, who has not one, but two degrees in ‘rocket science’. I don’t throw those degrees around lightly, as a joke, or even to try and say I’m smarter or better than anyone else because I’m not. I mention it because I have a secret. I struggled every single step of the way and not just because becoming an engineer with two degrees is hard. I have learning disabilities. In college I was diagnosed with ADD and a reading comprehension disorder.

That diagnosis came as a bit of a shock. But when I looked back at my schooling and how I approached it, everything made sense. That diagnosis was long overdue but it came so late in my school career because I hid it so well. I’d learned how to cope in secret until things got so complex my coping mechanisms didn’t work anymore. If you go back to my early report cards the signs were there, glaringly obvious in fact. My second grade teacher wrote “Jamie is a very bright student but when I’m teaching or reading to the class, she is playing with things in her desk or on my bookshelf. I had to move her desk away from some of the distractions.” Now to me that screams ADD but at the time, if you weren’t acting out, disrupting class, or completely failing out, no one saw any issue with it. The problem is (and not to over generalize), girls tend to show signs of ADD in much different ways then boys. They are more quiet about it, and it’s less disruptive to the outside world. But it is disruptive to the individual. So disruptive in fact, that you tune out the world and often miss important instructions. I mention the ADD because it filters into the reading comprehension problem. Getting distracted often directly affected my ability to comprehend what I read. But there is much more to my reading comprehension problem than just the ADD. At a time when reading should be fun to explore, I found it painful and frustrating. Downright tear inducing at times. I could read, really well in fact, but I didn’t understand it.

My second grade teacher did do one amazing thing for me though. She got me to read. No, not just read, read tons and tons and tons. She had a solar system on her wall and each student had a rocket ship. When you read a certain amount of minutes, you got to move your rocket ship to the next planet. When you reached the sun you got a sticker on your rocket, a prize, and then you started the adventure again. For a giant nerd like me who loved space, this was motivation enough to get my nose in a book. By the end of the year I had the most stickers on my rocket by far. The problem is, I didn’t comprehend and therefore remember, ninety percent of what I’d read. But this system worked well for me because it was based on time spent reading not number of pages read.

After second grade I stopped reading most books unless they were assigned for class. Even then, I often didn’t read them. The reason being, when I read a sentence, I often didn’t understand it. Somewhere between my eyes seeing the words and my brain, the phrase disappeared into the ether. I’d read sentences upwards of 20 times and still it was like I hadn’t even seen the words on the page. Assignments that should take me thirty minutes or maybe an hour took three or more because I’d have to read and reread things over and over again. It was infuriating. So after a while I stopped trying. I gave up and found another way to deal with the problem.

Despite all signs, no one recognized the issue because I quickly found a way to cope. From grade school through high school and some of college, I never read textbooks. Not a one. It took too long and I’d still be doing my 10th grade history homework at the age of 31 if I had actually attempted to read my textbooks. In order to complete homework assignments, I scoured my notes from class, which the teachers often pulled directly from the book. If I couldn’t find the answers in my notes, I skimmed for a header in the textbook. When I found the most logical one, I looked for keywords until I found the answer. This worked about ninety percent of the time. When it didn’t, I went to Mom for help. She unfortunately didn’t do me any favors. She must have known I hadn’t read the book because within five minutes of reading, she usually found the answer for me. This technique got me through science, history, and a few other classes. Math was never a problem, though. Numbers were awesome. I could see a problem and immediately know what to do, no reading required. Word problems though, were my nemesis. I actually had to read, so I sucked at them.

But there were times when coping failed me. I also didn’t read instructions on assignments. Well, until 5th grade when I got an assignment that was all about reading instructions. Instructions took too long to read and I never understood them so why bother? On this particular assignment I got a page full of math problems that was a color by number, so figuring I knew what to do I went to town. I answered all the problems and colored the whole thing in. Meanwhile wondering why half the class had finished so fast. Turns out I failed the assignment. The instructions were a giant paragraph that basically boiled down to, do not complete this worksheet, write your name on the paper and turn it in. The way I had coped, had failed me. From that point on, I at least read instructions even if it was painful and time consuming.

Of all my classes though, English was a nightmare! When a teacher assigned a short story or a book, I was sunk. There was no way to fake reading a novel. So a thirty page reading assignment was hell. That was easily one to two hours of reading for me, sometimes more. And reading quizzes, forget about it! I’d sit down to take the quiz and it was like I was on a totally different planet. Literally! I’d read a question and think to myself, that was in the book? That happened? I had no recollection. None. And then I’d fail the quiz. I frequently got between two and five out of ten on my reading quizzes.

But this wasn’t a memory problem. In fact, my memory is superb. When I sat down and finally got tested, the doctor would give me sequences of numbers to repeat back to him. We went up to 15 numbers in a row. I could repeat them back immediately without even batting an eye. In fact, I could even repeat them back in reverse order, which amazed the doctor. He’d never had a patient complete all the number sequences forwards and backwards. And yet when I read, words just didn’t sink in. Something was wrong. I couldn’t explain to someone what I’d just read because there was a blank hole where the words should have been.

And yet I coped, exceedingly well. I graduated middle school with a 4.0 and high school with a 3.9 GPA, without reading a single textbook. This didn’t work in college. By sophomore year the material was so in depth. The teachers actually expected you to read the textbooks because they taught more complex theory in class. They didn’t regurgitate what was in the book, they taught supplementary material. BLASPHEMY! Even worse the grade weighting had shifted significantly. Homework went from 70-80% of your grade to about 30%. It was all about how you tested. I was screwed! I was in engineering which was mostly math, but engineering is also word problems. FREAKING WORD PROBLEMS! I went to war with my exams and I lost. Miserably. Epically bad. Now engineering exams are notorious for having averages of 30-50%. But I would get well below the average. Meaning I maybe did 20-30% of the exam right. And believe me I wasn’t average. Not even close. I was an A student. I got some B’s don’t get me wrong and I failed reading quizzes but I DID NOT get D’s and F’s on exams. And yet I had, multiple times.

Something was glaringly wrong, and it wasn’t that I was misunderstanding the material. In fact, my biggest clue was that I had a two part class with the same teacher. In the first semester I got a nearly perfect grade in the class. I aced the first exam. But in the continuation of the material I was flunking. I don’t flunk. So I pulled out the exam I aced and the exam from the semester I failed. Same teacher, similar material, and yet I’d failed. Then I pulled out an exam from another class that I’d also failed. I started to see a correlation. On the exam I aced, the word problems were a maximum of two lines. The exams I failed, paragraphs of words. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand the material, I’d failed to comprehend what was being asked of me. It had gotten lost in that black hole between my eyeballs and my brain.

So I got tested. Sure enough I had a significant deficiency in reading comprehension and ADD. And once I had a diagnosis, I found new and more effective ways to cope with the problem. Including getting extra time on tests so I could clarify with teachers that I understood what was being asked of me. But now that I’m an adult, this issue hasn’t just magically disappeared. It’s still there. Whether I sit down to read a long email at work, or I’m just reading for pleasure. Often times things just disappear into the ether. I have to take a step back and go wait, what did I just read? Did I really understand that? But I push on. Despite all the issues, I love to read. I wish I’d learned to cope with reading at an early age. I’m deeply saddened when I think about all the books I missed out on as a kid. Nothing interested me enough to make me fight through the time it took to read, so I quit doing it.

But in the end I chose to tell this whole story to make a point. Just because you have a learning disability does not mean you are stupid. It just means you deal with things in your world differently. Smart people have disabilities too. They often hide them, exceedingly well. Like most with disabilities, they cope. When that doesn’t work, they step back re-evaluate and find another way. Just because they aren’t failing out of school and life, doesn’t mean they don’t have a problem or that they aren’t struggling. Imagine if you had to go through life not understanding what you read. You’d be sunk. Unless you learned how to work around it like I did. My methods aren’t always perfect. They still sometimes fail me. But I keep pushing on day after day. One thing is for certain though, I will never let it keep me from enjoying books again.

Emily Ladau: Thanks for the Help, I Guess, But I’m Not Helpless!

Emily LadauEmily recently graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English from Adelphi University on Long Island, New York, where she was born and raised. This past summer, she completed an internship at the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD) under the auspices of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) internship program. Emily is a passionate self-advocate and is pursuing a career in which she can use her communication and love of writing as a means of positive change for all disabled people. You can follow Emily on Twitter and check out her blog on disability issues and lived experiences with her disability, “Words I Wheel By.”


All too often, portrayals of disability in literature mirror the common assumption that disability signifies helplessness. And while this literary trope is unfortunately true to the thought processes of many nondisabled people, using it in writing perpetuates the mindset that nondisabled people best know the needs of disabled people. The idea that disabled people do not know how or when to help themselves is usually thrust upon us by well-meaning nondisabled people. Yet, an able-bodied person’s attempt at a good deed can become a disabled person’s unwelcome frustration.

When written responsibly, literature can spark positive change by helping society to move past stereotyping disability. However, in order for this to occur, it is imperative for nondisabled authors to assess their own assumptions and behaviors and move towards a greater understanding of the lived experiences of disabled people. To provide some insight into the ways that assumptions of helplessness diminish the rights and independence of disabled people, I’d like to share a few anecdotes in the hopes that writers will think twice before depicting disabled characters as helpless, and that nondisabled people will think twice before rushing to an unneeded rescue.

To start, I suppose it can be a bit of a sight when I’m out with my boyfriend. We both use wheelchairs, and without fail, we attract attention and garner offers of assistance everywhere we go. It’s certainly understandable, because going places is an interesting process for us. For instance, here’s how we get in his car: We take a step stool out of the trunk, put it next to the passenger side, and I climb in. Then, my boyfriend moves my wheelchair, takes it apart, folds it up, and lifts it into the trunk. Finally, he gets in the car, takes apart his own wheelchair, puts it in the back seat, and off we go. To get out of the car, we reverse all these steps.

Now, you’re probably thinking one of two things. You’re either amazed at how buff and manly my boyfriend seems for doing all the heavy lifting, or you’re wondering how we go through a process that sounds so complicated just to drive somewhere. But what people don’t usually seem to realize is that we’ve got things under control. We have our routine down to a science, and we know what works for us. It actually makes me laugh sometimes because people offer help when I’m in the middle of a parking lot with my boyfriend, and I wonder how it doesn’t occur to them that we clearly already made it to the location on our own, in spite of the fact that we don’t have helpful wheelchair-folding elves in the backseat.

I do see the reasons why the first instinct of an able-bodied person is that two people in wheelchairs must need help. I just wish people wouldn’t make automatic assumptions like that. It’s not that we’re unappreciative; we just know what methods are best for us the same way other people know what works for them. And if either of us needs help, we’ll ask! Our wheelchairs do not preclude us from being in touch with our own needs.

While I try not to begrudge people for offering assistance when I look like I might genuinely need it, there are certain situations in which offers of help leave me truly confounded. One such instance occurred quite recently while I was sitting outside an airport. I was with my mother, who happened to be using her power wheelchair at the time. (Yes, I know I’ve got a veritable microcosm of the disability community in my life!) We were guarding over our luggage while my dad went to park the car, chatting and joking around. A woman who already had two huge suitcases in her hands approached us and politely asked “Do you ladies need any help?” Forget the fact that there was no way she could have helped us with her hands full…we didn’t need help in the first place! Our luggage was resting on the ground and my mother and I were literally just sitting there. There was no indication that we were struggling. If an able-bodied person was standing next to a suitcase and didn’t give off any cues that he/she needed help, it would be weird for a stranger to approach the person and offer help. But somehow, visible indicators of disability automatically give people license to assume I must be in need of help even when I’m not asking.

Thankfully, most people stop asking if I need help after the first time I decline, but on rare occasions, people try to be “helpful” to the point of overstepping boundaries and causing downright uncomfortable situations. I’ll share a story that happened while getting in the car with my boyfriend. While I was interning in Washington, D.C. this summer, he came down to visit me. One evening, he picked me up from work, and as we were about to get into the car, a man approached us and offered help. When we said no thanks, the man didn’t back off, but proceeded to ask repeatedly if we were sure we didn’t need anything. Uh, yes, I think we’re sure of our own needs. And yet, each time we said no, the man moved closer until he was standing over us. Just as we finally thought we’d shaken him off, it turned out the man was parked next to us, so we told him it would be most helpful if he’d move his car so I would have more room to get in our car. Instead of leaving, the man got in his car and stared at us with his window open, continuing to insist he’d be there if we needed assistance as I awkwardly tried to climb in our car as fast as possible. The man finally left, albeit reluctantly, as we were pulling out of the parking lot. Not only was he practically babysitting us, but also he was completely undermining our personal authority.

Even after all this, I’d still prefer a person to ask me (once) if I need help rather than helping me without asking. A typical example of this happens all the time when people grab on to the back of my wheelchair and try to push me without asking first. I do realize that to observers I may sometimes appear to need assistance, because I’m not exactly an athlete in the Paralympics and I can be slow when I’m pushing myself. But I know my capabilities and my limits, and though I’m stubborn at times, I’ll eventually relent and ask for a push if I need it.

There is a key movement in the disability community for the right to self-determination, which means that we have the power to freely choose how and when we act or are acted upon, without having the will of nondisabled people forced upon us. Or, in the simplest possible terms: disabled DOES NOT mean helpless. I cannot stress this enough. Being a good person is a great thing, but please don’t do it at the expense of allowing me to determine my own needs. It’s time for able-bodied people to differentiate between politeness and infringing upon my independence.

Welcome Back!

It’s September, which means we’re back!

While the August break was lovely (and so very refreshing), we could not be more thrilled to begin having regular content again. We’ll be posting weekly instead of daily, with new posts going up every Friday. As you’ve probably guessed, the first post will be up this Friday, September 6! Make sure you follow the blog itself for updates, as well as on Twitter and Tumblr.

We’ve got some great stuff coming up, but we’re still open to new and returning contributors! If you’re interested, make sure you check out our guidelines and then shoot us an email. We’d especially love to hear from POC and those interested in writing reviews.

Finally, Kayla did an interview about our re-launch over at London Crockett’s blog, which should tide you over until this party really gets started on Friday.

Thanks so much for your continued interest and passion and support. We really appreciate it, and we’re so excited to be back!

Corinne, Kayla, and Kody