Minnesota Deaf Heritage Oral-Visual Interview with Joan Stephan
This interview with Joan Stephan (JS) was incorporated into the Commission of Deaf, DeafBlind, and Hard of Hearing Minnesotans’ (MNCDHH) Oral-Visual History Project. This interview was originally produced by the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services Metro Division (DHHSD) of the Minnesota Department of Human Services. This interview took place in 1997. The interviewer was Dale Finke (DF).
A note about translation of this interview: The interview was recorded in American Sign Language (ASL). The interviewer and interviewee used ASL as a first language, and the signed information was translated into vernacular or spoken English by interpreters.
This transcript and the open captions in the video are based on the spoken English information.
Actions are in brackets. Translation notes are in parentheses and italics (using the emphasis font), and they represent additional information and corrections about what was said.
Transcript of Interview with Joan Stephan
Key to names:
JS = Joan Stephan (signs in American Sign Language, voiced in English by interpreters)
DF = Dale Finke (signs in American Sign Language, voiced in English by interpreters)
[Visual of title graphic “Minnesota Deaf Heritage: An Interview with Joan Stephan”]
[Dale Finke is sitting with Joan Stephan for the interview.]
DF: Hello there. My name is Dale and I am here to interview Joan Stephan. She has come to share her experiences with her program working with Deaf refugees. I think it was DREP or something like that, which means the Deaf Refugee Education Program. I'm really pleased that she is here, and perhaps this will allow us to understand a little bit more about the refugee program. I am sure she is willing to share her wealth of experience with us so we can learn why this program was established here.
JS: I'm really glad to be here and, yes, it's been a real thrill and an honor and a challenge for me to be working with those individuals that I have been working with for the last ten years. You said DREP. Now that name was changed as of two years ago in 1994 when our financial support ran out. We are no longer financed through the federal government. We were only able to obtain funding through the St. Paul public schools community education. The name is now Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services as part of the Hubbs Center for Life Long Learning, which is at 1030 University Avenue in St. Paul.
DF: You said that this program was set up about ten years ago. The DREP program, where was it initially established before you move to the current location?
JS: It all started around 1980 when Minnesota expected a very large influx of people coming from Laos and other Southeast Asian countries. They knew many people were leaving because of the Vietnam War. And the churches here, including the Catholic, Lutheran and various other denominations, were interested in sponsoring those individuals who were coming over. So we the teachers had to be ready to accept them. That was around 1979. I started working with a Deaf girl who was about twelve years old and was going to Como school. It was there that I became aware of the needs of the refugees. I became more and more fascinated with all of Southeast Asia, because they were coming here with no education. They were coming with an exciting cultural basis and with close family ties. I began to want to learn more about them. At that time I was teaching at Como Elementary. This was part of a K 12 program and I remained with that program as I worked as an itinerant teacher with hard of hearing kids who were Southeast Asian. Many of them had hearing problems from ear infections, some were chronic problems and others were intermittent.
DF: You made reference to their hearing, and maybe this is a naive question but, coming here to America from an Asian country you are dealing with a different language and there is a vast difference between the two languages. How was it determined that they were deaf and not that they just couldn't speak the language? How was this determination made?
JS: In the K 12 schools they had school nurses that would make sure that each child had an audiological evaluation. And from that audiological evaluation, we were able to find out what degree of hearing they had. Prior to that, they would have a screening to see if they needed some kind of referral. And also the screening may be scheduled because the classroom teacher may realize that the child is not talking and perhaps that they were not hearing either and suspected some kind of hearing loss. But if a person, child or adult, were obviously using hand gestures and not using their voice and were unable to communicate in their own language, it was apparent that there was a very different need and that person would need to be checked to see if they were deaf or hard of hearing. More often than not that kind of person would end up in our program and not really adult education.
DF: Now we are noticing more and more kindergarten through 12th grade programs. However there seems to be an oversight in regards to adults. I'm sure there are still more adults out there. Children are able to be recognized right away within the system, but the adults do get missed. Is there a problem with identifying those adults that need help?
JS: I would suspect that is very true. But fortunately we have families who care about those individuals and the family may see or be aware of some kind of hearing loss or the fact that the person is deaf. They may refer them to the agencies they know about. In about 1980 a few Deaf people started showing up in places that did not serve Deaf people. Those places knew about St. Paul T.C. (Technical College) and knew they had a program that could help them learn American Sign Language (ASL). And so St. Paul Technical College hired a teacher whose name was Susan Boinis. This was about 1980, and it was a very small class. There were maybe five deaf Hmong in that group. Those people started learning American Sign Language. They continued using their native sign language, including mime, as that was the language that the family would use. When talking to Americans they would use American Sign Language. So, they were actually utilizing both modalities.
DF: It's amazing how these people were identified and the willingness was there to help them. If they were not given the opportunity by St. Paul TVI, or Technical Vocational Institute as it was called then, now it's Technical College, who knows what would have happened to them. I remember when I worked with people in counseling I had clients come to me from different countries, for example Hmong, Laos, Vietnam. It was very hard to communicate with them. They had gestures and "home signs" which they used in the family to communicate with their siblings and spouses. I was impressed by them but also challenged. You just explained why DREP was established. But, what is the goal of DREP? What is the purpose behind the program? To encourage learning, to make the transition in their life from their former country to life in America? To assist in that transition? Is that correct?
JS: Well we try to meet as many of their needs as possible. Unfortunately we can't meet all their needs. In 1982 83 there was a better response from those serving Deaf individuals. As you were saying, St. Paul T.C. could no longer provide sign language classes for that population. We knew that these people needed a lot more than just sign language classes. They needed some basic functional skills, English literacy, math skills for budgeting concepts. They needed all those things. After searching, they did find that the Metro Deaf Seniors (MDS) agency was interested in working with that group. Then there was a grant written by both – I wish I could remember their names now, it was two women – oh yes! Peg Thomas. Sorry, Peg Thomas, Susan Boinis and JoLynn Blaeser. The three of them worked very hard to write a grant to make sure that services would be able to commence through the MDS classes in order to increase their functional independence.
DF: You use the term MDS. What is MDS?
JS: MDS is the Metro Deaf Seniors. At that time they were very active but nowadays they are not as active which is very unfortunate. They helped so many individuals, including our refugees.
DF: Was it more like foster grandparents? Helping take care of, teach and train them on a more fun and interactive basis?
JS: Yes that's right. They were wonderful. They were caring. They were curious about their backgrounds and they supported their ongoing sign language acquisition. They even let them use their workshop to make things. They did crafts together. It was just wonderful.
DF: You mentioned crafts. One time I noticed there was a group of women, Hmong or Laotian, that were sewing this huge picture. It was almost like a quilt. The pictures showed a collage of their country. It included their villages, helicopters from the Vietnam War era. There also was one of people working in the rice fields. And there were other farm scenes such as cows. It was just amazing, the skill involved. So when you mentioned crafts, I made that connection. I was extremely impressed by that work of art.
JS: Yes, crafts are a big part in the attempt to service these people. These people were not idle in their former countries. They were hard working farmers. During down time, they would work on basket weaving, building things or the women would sew. So, why can't they continue those skills here? When they first arrived, they had no money to buy materials and were unable to work. They weren't ready for employment. People were not trying to encourage them. We thought it would be best to incorporate their crafts while simultaneously learning American Sign Language, English and money skills.
DF: I'm wondering, when they came here to settle and begin their new lives, did you notice any negative aspects that may have impacted their lives? Has it been an easy transition, or have they resistant or perhaps are still struggling with life in America? What has been your experience with that?
JS: After MDS, they gave the program to the St. Paul schools. That was really when it hit me. You need to serve people holistically. You can't just provide a class for them and expect that everything is going to be just fine. We recognized that we would have to work with the families as well. That was in 1987, when the St. Paul schools started working with them. They provided case management, and we had people on staff who could communicate through both spoken and written Hmong. Sometimes if there were other cultures, other than Hmong, such as Spanish, Romanian or Polish, we would have to seek out people who could provide the linguistic connection and interpret. We did find that often families did not know what to do to support the individual. Perhaps the family was over-protective of the individual, or student. I call them students because they were in our program as students, not as clients. I was really impressed that they were learning, and not just going there to get help. It gave them the opportunity to find out what their own strengths were. We realized that we needed to provide a holistic program. These are the resources, now you know where to go if you need help.
DF: That's very true. They would continue to attend for years until they became comfortable and knew where they needed to go. They knew where the gathering places were where they could socialize and get a lot of support from each other. It almost became more of a "second home" for them. I’ve noticed a change from when all of this happened, when Hmong, Laotian, Vietnamese and others came from Southeast Asia to America in order to escape the Vietnam war. Now there are issues with Cuba and the uprisings there. Refugees are fleeing Cuba and are flooding into Florida. Some have stayed there and some have moved here. Now there are more Deaf refugees from Cuba. Then again, over time, when other countries, such as Romania which you mentioned, go through periods of chaos or dictatorships, we see an influx of deaf refugees from those countries. Have you found that with the arrival of all the different cultural refugees which you have worked with, that it is difficult to manage all the different needs and educational expectations? Is it more difficult now than when you only had to focus on only the original group of Southeast Asian refugees?
JS: Many people think that it would be very hard. However, it really is a wonderful challenge. I think Southeast Asians need to know that they are not alone, in the changes they have needed to make in their lives. They needed to escape from an awful life situation. It is good for them to see others who have had the same experiences related to war and other conflicts. Because of those traumatic situations, there is a bond that forms between them. They may have both suffered from starvation, lost family or have seen a great number of deaths. Of course there are those who have more education, such as those from Europe, they tend to have more education. They are therefore able to go through the education training process quicker. But people from Southeast Asia typically have had no prior education and no support system. Although they may have seen another Deaf person, they still have a harder time and a longer adjustment.
DF: OK. I think I more clearly understand about the classes, the school program and how you determine what their needs are. It's amazing how the times have changed over the years and services have improved. There are many more resources available and programs established to provide assistance and understanding to meet the needs of these diverse cultural groups. There is also greater access to communication which allows them to feel that they can live their life here and that things are much better. I would like to thank you, Joan. It was really a wonderful experience having you here to share with us. We would like to continue learning more about what your refugee program is all about and how you have helped the community, about services agencies and individuals who are still in their learning process, to understand your program.
JS: I really appreciate and look forward to the opportunity for all agencies to work together. There are agencies such as DRS (Department of Rehabilitation Services) and the RSC (Regional Service Centers) who have helped us tremendously. I look forward to more opportunities to work together on behalf of our deaf refugee students. Thank you for this opportunity.
DF: Thank you, Joan, and [Dale turns to the camera] thank you for joining us and learning from her. It was wonderful to have her here with us.