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April 21, 2005

A voice amid silence

From: Wilkes Barre Times-Leader, PA - Apr 21, 2005

Sue Thomas relays personal struggles, "deaf culture."


DALLAS TWP. – With a sly smile and silver hair beneath a brimmed black hat, Sue Thomas stands out despite her short stature. But what really sets her apart is her peculiar accent, the one that came from being deaf from childhood and learning to talk without hearing her voice … or anyone else's.

"I took speech therapy in front of a mirror," Thomas recounted shortly before talking to a crowd at Dallas Middle School recently. "I put my hand on my throat to feel the vibrations. I had seven years of that. Then my parents brought in a voice coach so my voice would fluctuate up and down. That was seven years, too. Then I read poetry for articulation." She also learned to read lips.

Profoundly deaf since she was 18 months old – even with a hearing aid, she's lucky to notice an ambulance siren or jet engine – Thomas is on one side of a three-way divide among the deaf: those who learn to speak without hearing, those who learn sign language, and, more recently, those who get digital hearing aids or cochlear implants.

It's usually surprising to people who can hear, but there are some "deaf culture" advocates who shun the idea of learning to speak or getting cochlear implants. Thomas talks because her mother gave her no other choice – there were times she couldn't eat her dinner unless she could correctly ask for food by name. She has chosen, however, to become a voice for those who live in silence.

Although she admits "I am an oral deaf person. I wish, I wish with all my heart that every single deaf person could speak," she insists it's more important that they be heard, whether or not they speak.

More recently, fate gave her a second cause when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Now she advocates for victims of the incurable disease that ravages the nervous system. But she came to Dallas with her hearing dog Katie by her side to talk about silence. Thomas was brought by Luzerne Intermediate Unit Oral/Auditory Program Director Sue Zerfoss.

Katie is trained to alert Thomas about noises such as sirens, oven timers, doorbells, and babies crying.

"She helps by physical contact," Thomas explained. "She alerts me by placing a paw on me and leading me to where the sound is." The golden retriever is also trained to help with the MS, providing balance while going upstairs, retrieving things and hitting buttons to open automatic doors.

"You want to know how much she cost?" Thomas said with a smile. "$25,000."

That sounds like a lot, but when you hear her story, you learn that the cost of deafness has no limit.

Thomas heard fine for her first 18 months. Then, "one night I was watching TV with my brother and I started fiddling with the knob, turning it up."

The next morning, Sue didn't respond to voices. A doctor confirmed she was deaf. And since she hadn't learned to speak, she was mute. Or, as they said in those politically incorrect days, she was "deaf and dumb."

Besides learning to talk, this "dummy" learned to skate by keeping an eye on her coach who physically marked the music's beat. At age 7, she became the youngest Ohio freestyle skating champion in the state's history.

"It saved my life," she told the audience when recounting the story. "Why? I wanted a friend. Let's face it, who wants to be a friend to someone who talks funny? Who wants to be a friend to a dummy?

"Deafness separates the person from the people."

That separation kept her apart from peers. When she was a junior in high school, a typing teacher said, "You have one more year left, what do you want to do?" Thomas was stunned at the question. "I blurted out 'I want to go to college.' The teacher asked why. "Because I just want to be like everybody else."

She went to college, but she still wasn't like everyone else. No one would give her a real job, until she heard that the FBI was looking for deaf people. Someone in the bureau thought that deaf people, undistracted by noise, would be great at studying and comparing fingerprints. She was thrilled, until she started the tedious work.

"In the first five minutes, I realized it was the greatest mistake of my life," Thomas said. Well, maybe not quite. One day she was called to the main office. They asked if she watched TV. She confessed she did. They asked if she went to movies. She said, "Yes, it's a lot better. The lips are bigger."

It turned out they had surveillance footage of criminals talking, but thanks to a technical glitch, they had no sound. They wanted her to read the lips of those on the film. She did. A career was born. Soon she was working undercover surveillance, following bad guys and reading lips.

That inspired a TV show on the PAX network, "Sue Thomas, F.B.Eye." Though they hired a speaking deaf actress to portray Thomas, they did take some liberties. The TV Thomas "is tall and thin and blond," the real Thomas said. "She makes me look good."

You decide. There's a picture of both versions on Sue Thomas' Web site, The real Sue is the silver-haired fox winking at you on the right.

Thomas tells crowds about her class action lawsuit filed when, on a visit to Hawaii, they insisted her hearing dog stay quarantined even though seeing-eye dogs had no such restriction. It took seven years, but they changed the law. She talks about her years in a seminary, when she got so desperate for friends she lied about having a terminal illness. She nearly cries when she recounts how she apologized.

And she insists she never tells her story – which she does often these days – "without giving the song," a haunting rendition of "Silent Night." Her voice – sometimes quavering, floating in and out of key – is always as clear as the message she conveys.

"The silence will teach us, if we listen."

Mark Guydish, a Times Leader staff writer, may be reached at 829-7161.

© 2005 Times Leader and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.