Friday, May 13, 2011
Deaf Student an Academic Trailblazer
By Joline Gutierrez Krueger
Journal Staff Writer
Teresa Blankmeyer Burke's hearing loss was slow and profound, a silent thief that left little behind save for the auditory memory of mourning doves cooing on a telephone line near her house.
By the time she was 3, her mother knew something was amiss. The family doctor, though, dismissed her mother's concerns, patted her on the head and told her not to worry. Things would work out in time.
Burke is 47 now. Her hearing never returned. But things worked out anyway.
Burke is one of those women whose lives are incredibly well-lived. She is a philosopher, bioethicist and an instructor of both at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the world's only liberal arts university designed to accommodate deaf and hard-of-hearing students.
She is Barelas Babe, the famed blogger who frequents the local Duke City Fix website. (And yes, she lives in Barelas, making her weekly commute to and from work more than 1,600 miles one way by air.)
She is a mother of two and wife of Albuquerque artist and photographer Lloyd Venerable. She is an amasser of frequent-flier miles, advocate of the international deaf community.
On Saturday, Burke graduates with a doctorate in philosophy, the first deaf student to earn the degree at the University of New Mexico.
She has, it appears, never taken the easiest path.
A few weeks before her latest accomplishment, we sat and talked in her cozy, cluttered adobe home about her remarkable journey, which has been anything but silent.
That we can talk so casually without aid of sign language or accommodation other than the hearing aids she always wears is remarkable. Unless she tells you, or unless you have a penchant for mumbling or talking with your face pointed in the wrong direction, you might never know the lengths to which Burke goes to keep the discourse going. She reads lips, her eyes and her mind slipping in the appropriate vowels and consonants her hearing aids cannot discern, which is most of them.
"It's hard work," she says. "By the end of the day, I am exhausted."
At Gallaudet, she uses American Sign Language to teach her classes. At UNM, where she also obtained her master's degree in 2003, she has had to fight for signing interpreters and other accommodations for her deafness and at her academic level.
"I was pretty irate when I found out that UNM didn't have anything of this nature to accommodate deaf students," she says. "They were not prepared to take somebody like me on."
That, despite the groundbreaking work by Phyllis Wilcox, professor of linguistics and the coordinator of the Signed Language Interpreting Program. Wilcox had blazed a trail for deaf students at UNM, including herself. With Wilcox's help, Burke has been able to take that trail to new heights.
"There were times of tears and such frustration," she says. One of the worst times came when she signed up for a philosophy conference and was told she couldn't go because the agency sponsoring the conference could not accommodate her deafness.
Instead of walking away, Burke filed her first complaint under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Burke got her sign language interpreter and attended the conference. Eight years later, she says, the agency automatically provides for deaf attendees, something of which she is most proud.
"It was a great feeling to know that what I did made a difference," she says.
What she learned, what she wants others like her to learn is that to accomplish goals you have to be heard, even if you are deaf.
"You want to be part of a community; you want to achieve something meaningful, you have to deal with the barriers," she says. "You have to be tenacious."
That, she has been. Burke heads the World Federation of the Deaf's bioethics task force. She belongs to the American Philosophical Association's inclusiveness committee. She runs a listserv for deaf academics. She writes for a blog for deaf folks called Deaf Echo. This summer, she hopes to secure a grant to continue her work on streamlining the way the names of philosophers are identified through sign language. The current way forces interpreters to spell out a philosopher's name. Burke's method requires one symbol.
All this while racing across the country and, often, farther than that when she speaks at various philosophy conferences around the globe.
It would be easier to move to Washington, D.C., of course. But the easy way has rarely been Burke's way.
"I like it here," she says. "This is home. There's a sense of community here. This is my 'hood."
PERSONAL NOTE: Now, dear readers, let me mention a little handicap of my own.
On April 27, I took off an irritated extended-wear contact lens and within a day the world went blank in that left eye. Doctors say I suffered a severe ulcerated cornea.
Initially, doctors gave me little hope that the eye would survive such intense, inexplicable, infectious destruction, despite daily visits to their offices and hourly medicated drops around the clock. They used the very technical medical term "horrible" to describe the eye's condition.
Two weeks later, there is some cause for optimism. The swath of demolition across my eye is slowly shrinking. But it may be weeks before the eye heals completely, months before the extent of permanent damage is known. Until then, you may not be reading me here as much. I appreciate your patience and your prayers, and I hope to see you again soon.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.