Minnesota Deaf Heritage Oral-Visual Interview with Kim Wassenaar
This interview with Kim Wassenaar (KW) 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 Robert “Bob” Cook (BC).
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 Kim Wassenaar
Key to names:
KW = Kim Wassenaar (signs in American Sign Language, voiced in English by interpreters)
BC = Robert “Bob” Cook (signs in American Sign Language, voiced in English by interpreters)
[Visual of title graphic “Minnesota Deaf Heritage: Interview with Kim Wassenaar”]
[Robert “Bob” Cook is sitting with Kim Wassenaar for the interview.]
BC: Hello, my name is Bob Cook, today I'm going to be talking with Kim Wassenaar. Hello, how are you?
KW: Fine, how are you?
BC: I'd like to take this time to thank you for coming today. I understand you had problems getting here?
KW: Well, I was here first and then I was told to go to a different place, only to find out at the second place that you were here, so I drove back here.
BC: I'd like to start by asking you a few questions. First tell me a little bit about yourself and your educational background.
KW: I'm not originally from Minnesota. I'm from Dayton, Ohio. Growing up – I grew up partly hearing and partly hard of hearing. I found out that I would become Deaf later in life. I don't know when. I became hard of hearing at the age of eight. I didn't know sign language (American Sign Language – ASL) because I had relied on my speech up until that point. I found public school to be difficult. Years later my mother heard about MSSD (Model Secondary School for the Deaf) in Washington, D.C. I started there in ‘73 and graduated in ‘78, at which time I came to Minnesota. Two days after I arrived here I became totally Deaf.
BC: What brought you to Minnesota?
KW: Well, I had been hearing a lot about Minnesota and St. Paul Technical College – it was called TVI (Technical Vocational Institute) at that time. People said I could get a good education here, so I decided to try it. If I didn't like it I could always either go back to Washington, D.C. or Ohio. But, once I got here, I was hooked. I love the people and the city. It's wonderful here.
BC: How many years did you attend St. Paul TVI?
KW: I started prep classes in the fall.
BC: And then you continued there until you graduated?
KW: I almost finished, but then I decided I wasn't happy, so I transferred to White Bear Lake in the 916 area, I graduated from there with a degree in Early Childhood Education.
BC: Did 916 provide interpreters and support services?
KW: Yes, they had a lot of wonderful services there.
BC: OK, let me back up just a bit. You said you went to MSSD and graduated from there. Had you learned sign language prior to that? Where did you learn your signing?
KW: I learned sign at MSSD. When I first arrived I knew nothing about sign language. I was really in culture shock. It seemed like a zoo. They were like animals. The noise was incredible. I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown. When I saw people conversing in sign, I didn't understand a single word of it until someone taught me everything I needed to know. I then felt a read bond to these people. I understood that this was my world. I started to understand other people too,. I no longer felt left in the dark, not understanding what people said as I did when I was trying to lip-read. Knowing sign language is wonderful!
BC: Wow. Can you remember your frustrations? Were you homesick being so far away?
KW: Well, are you asking me about when I came here to Minnesota or when I was in Washington D.C.?
BC: Washington D.C.
KW: No, I don't think I was homesick, not one bit. I was so fascinated with the Deaf world. I wanted to know so many things – ASL, PSE (Pidgin Signed English) – all the different Deaf languages that were so new to me. I wanted to learn everything I felt I needed to know so if I didn't become totally Deaf maybe I could interpret later, and so I could stay in contact with the Deaf Community.
BC: Good. I understand that you are very involved with the Deaf Community and BDA, Black Deaf Advocates. Tell me more about that.
KW: Last March we decided to set up a Black Deaf Advocates organization here in Minnesota. We want a chapter here in Minnesota, that's our goal, because BDA is something that the Black Deaf Community needs very badly. Really, we need their support – the community’s support, feedback, and help. And that will help a lot of Black Deaf people who don't have the kind of help they need.
BC: I'm really happy to hear that BDA is being established. As I look back at my own involvement with the Deaf Community, I recall there were mostly white people although there were a few black people as well. I can see your need to identify yourselves culturally. I think this establishment of this organization has been a long time coming. Is BDA a national organization, or is this the first one to be set up?
KW: Well, the national Black Deaf Advocates organization has been in operation since the 1980s. I think it originated either in Washington D.C. or Ohio. We feel that many Black Deaf people here in Minnesota are "in the woods" and it is hard to pull them out or get them out. I know it's hard, but we want to help them, and if they want help they can come to us - we are here for them. We need to set up a lot of services. Many people have offered their services.
BC: How long have you been active in BDA?
KW: How long? Well, we just started last March. Right now I'm president for the local Minneapolis-St. Paul BDA. We don't have a formal chapter yet, because we need to complete our by-laws first. Once we finish our bylaws, then the national BDA in Washington, D.C. will give us their help and support.
BC: That means the national BDA will help advise your chapter and give you guidance. How many members are there so far?
KW: Right now we have a list of about thirty local people that have signed up as members. We are trying to get together to discuss our advertising needs, planning fundraisers, selling t shirts, finding sponsors, updating each other on events happening in the area. With fundraising events and sponsors, we will be able to provide the services that people are needing.
BC: What are some of the chapter's long-term goals?
KW: My goal is to see smiling faces on the people within the Black Deaf Community. Right now I see a lot of sadness, and people that are having a hard time – I want to see those people smile, to have joy and love knowing that they do have support. That's my main goal.
BC: Very good. Now tell me about your family.
KW: I will be married thirteen years as of tomorrow, September 10th. I have two girls - one is eleven, the other is seven.
BC: Are they Deaf?
KW: Both are hearing and both sign. They love using their sign language - every five minutes one or the other is wanting to chat with me. It's wonderful. I love my family very much.
BC: What does your husband do?
KW: He is a machines operator. He works for Kurt Manufacturing in Fridley.
BC: Is he hearing or Deaf?
KW: He is Deaf, totally Deaf.
BC: Interesting - you are Hard of Hearing, your husband is Deaf, but your two daughters are hearing. Has your husband been Deaf since he was a child?
KW: He was born two months premature. He only weighed four pounds. They think that caused his deafness.
BC: Do your daughters go to school in your neighborhood?
KW: Yes, both. My youngest goes to Hamilton Elementary, and my oldest to Coon Rapids Middle School. She's taller than I am now. I'm a short woman - it's really depressing!
BC: You should be proud – that means you've fed them well. Tell me about your hobbies and what you do to stay busy.
KW: Right now I'm involved in a lot of activities. I'm president of the bowling league at Lynnbrook and I'm involved with the Great Lakes Deaf Bowling Association, and I'm secretary for the Twin Cities Bowling Association. So, I'm involved in bowling tournaments, black Deaf club, and so on. Really, bowling is my life - I meet so many people from around the world through bowling. It's just great!
BC: I know that part of Deaf Culture is the love of sports - especially bowling. My wife and my two daughters bowl, and I used to, but now I'm too old. No really, I just have other things to do. So you are a full time mother, you have your work, and other activities - you must be exhausted!
KW: Ha ha! Really, I'm a homemaker. I'm not working anymore, so I find the time. It's true, I get tired, but my mind won't let me just relax. I have to stay busy and, of course, my kids keep me busy also.
BC: So you have to set up a family schedule. Your husband often goes fishing with me and we always have a good time. Your family manages their time so well. I’m impressed.
KW: Well, I try. I try to compromise. We have learned to keep each other informed as to our plans and divide our schedules accordingly. That makes things a lot easier. The key is to keep open lines of communication that is so important in a family.
BC: OK, now I'd like to ask you about the Deaf Community in general. Black or white - what are your perceptions of the social interactions, ASL, SEE (Signing Exact English), PSE, legislative laws - what issues related to Deaf people really impress or bother you?
KW: What impresses me? Hmmm – well, the way we communicate with each other, the way we see things differently from our perspective in life. There are a lot of things that impress me about the Deaf world – we have the TDD (Telecommunications Device for the Deaf)/Relay Service – there are so many things. On the other hand, one thing that bothers me is people who don't really understand what the Deaf world really is like. They have a hard time understanding how we feel, emotionally and physically.
BC: Do you think you will ever move back to Dayton, Ohio? Or do you love it here in Minnesota, despite the winters, enough to stay?
KW: My skin has become thick enough that I can withstand the cold. I think I'll stay. I feel rooted here in Minnesota, but in the future I will go back to visit my hometown in Ohio, and share my experiences living here in Minnesota. My heart belongs in Minnesota, so I will stay here.
BC: Good! We need you to stay here! I hope someday I'll see BDA and your local chapter working with our state agency, MADC – the Minnesota Association of Deaf Citizens, who also provide necessary services. As I look back at the services I've been involved with, I can still see a lot of room for improvement. Attitudes concerning deafness have become more positive. There is more use of ASL. Hard of Hearing people have more communications options today and I respect their right to choose. What is your feeling about encouraging children to learn only ASL versus all the different modes of communication?
KW: I prefer to be encouraging of the teaching of ASL because that is a perfect language for all. I don't mind if the other modes are taught as well, but ASL is the most important because it is easier to pick up and understand. English especially is hard for a Deaf person to catch on to. ASL is short and much easier.
BC: Are you telling me you think teaching ASL is better because of your experiences as a Hard of Hearing person? That you found English to be very frustrating. Is that correct?
KW: Yes, because once you find out that at some point you will become totally Deaf but you're not sure when, you recognize how completely different ASL and English are as languages. ASL is quick and conceptually easy to understand, and English seems to carry on and on - just get to the point, you know.
BC: Thank you for your time with us today.
KW: Thank you for asking me to be here.
[Visual of end graphic “produced by the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services Division, Metro Regional Service Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing People, 1997”]
[Visual of end graphic “special thanks to Kimberly and David Williams, Kim Wassenaar, Bob Cook”]