Finding a voice in silence
PITTSFIELD -- "I love being deaf!" says Karran Larson, and she means every word.
But it hasn't always been so.
A case manager for the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (MCDHH), Larson was born in a small Illinois town in the early 1950s. Long before newborn screenings and rubella vaccinations were routine, Karran's mother was concerned.
"You worry too much, "the pediatrician said. "She's just a little slow. She'll outgrow it."
In school, Larson sat in the first row, observing her teachers vigilantly. Never hearing the bell, some day, she told herself, she'd understand how all the kids knew exactly when to put their papers away and get up to leave the classroom. Her teachers, calling her lazy and inattentive, recommended she be put into a state institution for the retarded. Fortunately, a second grade teacher said, "That child isn't dumb! She needs a hearing test!"
The only deaf member of her family, Larson found her home supportive, attentive and loving. Her father, an ardent civil rights activist, insisted on the importance of reading, which developed Larson's linguistic capacity.
"He made good rules," she recalled. "At dinner we all sat around a circular dining table. I could see everybody when they spoke. Only one person was allowed to talk at a time -- never with a mouth full!"
Except for middle school years at the Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis, where she learned lip-reading and speech, Larson attended regular schools.
In the late 1960s -- when Civil Rights, Women's Liberation, and Deaf and Disability Pride initiatives were changing the world -- Larson enrolled in the University of Southern Illinois, transferred to the New School for Social Research, in New York, and got a master's degree in rehabilitation counseling from New York University.
"The times were so powerful," she said. "It used to be that I had a 'hearing problem.' Even with my wonderful family, I grew up without a deaf role model or deaf peers, internalizing an unspoken message from the dominant culture that part of me was defective. I needed to fake it. But now, meeting healthy, unashamed deaf people, I was out! I didn't care what anyone thought. With Deaf Pride, everything changed. I'm so proud to be a part of the deaf community."
Now bilingual in English and American Sign Language (ASL) and knowledgeable about the lifeways of deaf people, Larson was becoming bicultural. She loved living in New York, but not wanting to raise children there, moved with her family to the Berkshires.
Discovering a significant need for mental health counseling among deaf students, she transferred to the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health in Pittsfield, becoming a licensed mental health counselor. Now, with her colleagues, she supplemented her individual counseling with the critical work of interagency collaboration.
Thriving on challenges, Larson spends much of her time advocating, counseling, referring, consulting, training, and improving cooperation among various state departments -- Health, Developmental Disabilities, Mental Health, Education, Justice, Housing, Transitional Assistance, and Legal Assistance.
One aspect of her work involves helping growing numbers of deaf immigrants. Many have special educational needs and may be victims of violence, mentally or physically ill, in need of housing or legal assistance, she said.
Arriving here, they may know their country's distinctive sign language. But some, deaf from birth, may never have learned to sign. The degree to which linguistic capacity develops will depend on a child's age when hearing is lost.
In refugee camps, Larson adds, medical care, like schooling, is minimal.
Knowing American Sign Language helps deaf immigrants to take part in resettlement and citizenship programs.
"Where there is ESL, there should be ASL," Larson insisted.
Significant comprehension and communication difficulties make it hard to find work, she said.
This is true for all immigrants. And if they do not understand what is expected of them to comply with visa requirements, their lives are shadowed with deportation fears.
"I'm a high-energy person," Larson said. "My work keeps me challenged. It's good."
Conveying the joy she finds in life, Larson also understands the scorn and disrespect that anyone learning a new culture may experience.
Devoting herself to alleviating the isolation and practical needs of the deaf, this generous, experienced, gifted woman is also a human-rights advocate.
Questioning, making connections, and, like her father, pushing for change, Larson enriches all cultures lucky enough to claim her as a member.
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