Athletes of the Spirit:
An Exploration of Disability
through Art and Writing
30" x 36" $2,900.00
Lois Smiley, age
Oakland, California USA
I enjoyed watching Lois Smiley signing
American Sigh Language (ASL) to tell me
her life story. Her daughter, Nanette,
translated for her. Lois was raised with six
siblings on a farm in Georgia, USA. When
she was five years old, she tried to make a
toy house out of lit matches. Not realizing
the danger of fire, Lois moved the flames
too close, and, except for her face, most of her body was badly burned. The doctor who treated her was a veterinarian, the only doctor near-
by who could treat an emergency. He treated her burns with a drug that kept her alive; that same drug caused her to become deaf. This drug is no longer used in the medical profession.
Children were cruel to Lois when she was growing up. She had no way to defend herself from their teasing. From the age of five to eight or
nine years old she communicated very little with others. Because she went to public school during the 1950s when the needs of people who
were deaf were often ignored, she sat in her chair at school either staring at the board or crying as children taunted her. Neither the teachers
at school nor her family and friends realized her desperate need to learn a language with which she could communicate her emotions,
desires, and acquired knowledge.
Finally, by fourth grade, Lois was sent to a private school for the deaf. There she learned ASL. At last she could defend herself against the
cruel children who teased her about her burns. She lived away from her family, and missed their love and support being right at hand.
Her family didn't learn ASL, but even those at the school who did use sign language, often didn't provide adequate emotional support. She
had to tough it out on her own most of the time, except for a few friends who stood by her. The one major consolation was a teacher who believed in her. He told her she should go to college and that her contribution to society was going to be great. Lois held onto this dream
and entered Gallaudet, the only liberal arts college for the deaf in the United States. There she received her degree in math.
Despite her tough childhood, Lois made many breakthroughs in her life. After college she worked with the disabled community, including
those who were deaf, helping them to live and work independently. She came out to California for a conference of people with disabilities
where she expressed her fears and doubts about her burns and deafness. She found acceptance from others, and most importantly of
herself. Staying in California, Lois broke through her fears. Listening to the advice of her peers, she took on the challenge of communicating
about relevant issues in front of large audiences at disability conferences. She taught sign to her children when they were still in their cribs so that they could communicate well together. Lois believes the elementary tools of sign language should be taught to all children.
Lois spoke with a wisdom that inspired me about people who are deaf. She believes that if someone is deaf, he or she will be happiest at an
all deaf school where the students mature naturally as they struggle with growing-up issues. In that ASL speaking environment they need not also contend with teachers who don't speak their primary language. Children with all hearing faculties have enough difficulty maturing while communicating in a language they know well. She also dispelled my belief that ASL is a universal language. Sign languages are as varied as spoken languages; also, lip reading among people who are deaf is quite rare. Typically only those who have some limited hearing can determine accurately the often slurred, colloquial words people speak rapidly.
In my painting, Breakthrough, Lois is a glass bird, shedding a closed-in , introverted childhood by pushing past a hard unforgiving wall and
taking flight to an expanded view of herself. The fists represent the sign "break" as they click together and then move apart. The open hand
with the index fingers parted receives the other hand (in this case a bird) going through it and indicates the word "through." Lois's break-through, or should I say many breakthroughs, are continually leading to future flights. The painting also represents my breakthrough in
understanding the deaf community as a thriving culture.
Robert F. Panara's Poetry
Deaf President Now!
The vote was cast at Gallaudet
And shattered every dream -
"Deaf people are not ready yet
To rule academe."
The students soon rose up in arms
With reason to complain
And cried, The Chairman of the Board
Had caused this day of shame!
They chose a hearing president
Who does not even Sign,
Not one to represent us -
A man of our own kind.
So in protest, they closed their ranks
And formed a barricade
To block the Board from trespassing
Their campus-wide crusade.
They chose four student leaders
To represent their bloc -
Tim Rarus, Jarry Covell,
Bridgetta Bourne and Greg Hlibok.
The foursome voiced their joint concern
Of all that was unfair,
And made their Deaf Identity
A common cause to share.
They said, "As history has shown
Throughout a hundred years,
Deaf people still can hold their own
When matched with hearing peers."
The Board has heard this quote before-
A truth that's very clear-
It isn't what you use them for
But whats between the ears!
We want to shape the destiny
Of those who come to learn
At this great University
Where Sign is our concern,
Where hands are used to make the words
for eyes to understand
And, just as worthy, Youth is served
To lead and to command.
Yes, now it's time to draw the line
And we will show them how
In unison our hands with sign-
We want DEAF PRESIDENT NOW!
Our buttons shall read DPN,
Which means DEAF PRESIDENT NOW!
It only takes three words to sign
our cause - DEAF PRESIDENT NOW!
And soon five thousand tramping feet
Begin their great parade,
As "DPN" their hands repeat
The cause of their crusade.
Their ranks are swelled as thousands pour
To Washington, D.C.
The scene which twenty million more
Are watching on TV,
Where deaf and hearing join as one
In justice ot avow:
" For Gallaudet, the time has come -
We want DEAF PRESIDENT NOW!"
Vote DPN! Vote DPN!
The message went around.
The Board was forced to meet again
To heed the sight and sound.
The Chairman of the Board resigned:
Had reconsidered and declined
(And did so with respect).
The balloting began again,
And when the voted were in,
They tallied up a DPN
And a smashing student win!
And, by this act, a precedent
Was subsequently set -
The new Chairman and the President
were schooled at Gallaudet.
They presented I. King Jordan,
A man so aptly named,
Who stood tall and proud before them
As they drowned him with acclaim.
As I. King Jordan took the stage
To greet his student fans
Wave after wave of "DPN"
Erupted from their hands!
He said, " If we have learned one thing,
Its truth is very clear -
Deaf people can do anything,
yes, anything but hear!"
"I accept your acclamation
And I'll do my best to be
The first deaf president to run
Four weary students rolled their eyes
and marveled, "Holy Cow!
Can you believe what we achieved -
We have DEAF PRESIDENT NOW!"