In Jill's OwnWords:
Questions and Answers with Jill Smink on the Seeing and Feeling of Sound
You are a native Philadelphian who overcame the stigma of a physical handicap and are a successful woman working in Washington D.C. Can you tell us a little more about the early years? Born and raised in Philadelphia, I lived there until I left for college at 18 years old. I was considered a quirky infant/toddler. I slept through the vacuum cleaner and the only thing that would calm me down during a car ride was the car radio on full blast (I could 'feel' the bass booming against the car frame and it was comforting). My mother was concerned and sent me to the doctor. However, between my father and the male doctor, I could 'feel' their deep voices reverberating against the walls. It made me responsive enough for the doctor to send me home. It wasn't until someone asked, "Who wants ice cream?" and all my cousins ran to the ice cream - except for me - that my mom knew there was a serious problem. I was diagnosed 'clinically deaf' and outfitted immediately with hearing aids. As a fussy two year old, I only wore them when my mother promised me french fries from McDonald's. I started school for hearing therapy and speech lessons when I was two years old.
In school, were you the only student wtih a hearing impairment? What were some emotional hardships you had to overcome? I was the only deaf student in grade school and high school. I sat in front of the classroom and watched my teachers' lips. I was shocked when a frustrated third grade teacher told us to 'throw up'. I told my father, who eventually asked the teacher about it. She had told us to 'grow up'. I still mishear things all the time. At 12, I went to Clarke School for the Deaf camp in Massachusetts and it was the first time I met other deaf children. It was a significant moment in my childhood. I had never felt such a sense of belonging and acceptance than at this camp. I kept in touch with other campers for years afterwards.
High school was more challenging academically and socially. I struggled to keep up with the note-taking demands (Have you ever tried writing notes while keeping your eyes on someone's face to lip-read?) Eventually, I asked friends to take their notes on carbon paper and I'd tear off a copy for myself. We watched educational movies and documentaries in class, but closed-captioning wasn't a federal requirement yet. Group projects like dissecting a fetal pig or conducting an experiment in chemistry class were difficult because your eyes are focused on the work in front of you while the group talks through the work and discusses next steps. I missed a lot of what was being said.
At Rochester Institute of Technology I majored in Biology and my first biology class had over 200 students and a teacher who wore a microphone anchored to the front of her mouth. There was no chance of lip-reading in this environment. There was a sign language interpreter present in the class. I learned to read her lips and with each class, picked up on the signs. I was learning a whole new language. Lectures were presented on large drop down screens. Going back and forth from the screen to the interpreter and catching what the professor was pointing to was difficult. Fortunately for me, RIT paid students to take notes and I received a photocopy of notes for every class I attended. I had sign language interpreters in almost every class and became fluent in a short amount of time.
Gross anatomy was the single most challenging experience. We were all required to wear facemasks; I had to look inside the cadaver at what my instructor was demonstrating but also watch the sign language interpreter to understand what was said. It was so difficult, I looked into switching majors. But, I managed and graduated with a Biology degree.
After graduating from Rochester Institute of Technology, you landed a job with the United States Environmental Protection Agency. What would you say to people who are afraid to move out of their comfort zone and try something new? Moving to Washington D.C. was the experience of a lifetime. I was young, fresh out of college, and eager to start my career. I've been at the US EPA now for ten years. During those ten years, I've worked in different offices. I have a Top Ten List for Working with Deaf Employees (download) that I share with colleagues whenever I start at a new office. People are often curious about my deafness but are politely reserved and hold back from asking questions. It really helps when I am open about my deafness and how best to work with me. I would encourage anyone with disabilities to consider doing something similar in their classrooms/office setting. For people moving out of their comfort zones, trying something new is the best way to learn. Once you try something, you can always go back to what you were doing before - but it's worth taking that chance. My life is hard and scary every day because I can't hear, but there are so many wonderful things I've experienced as well.
Though you live in Arlington VA now, what part of Philadelphia do you miss the most? The community of the Northeast. I am always guaranteed to bump into someone I know because of the roots my family has established there and because many people who live in Philadelphia call it home for years. Washington D.C. is such a transient town. There's no such thing as a 'local' community, at least, not for long. Last but not least, I miss the pretzels and the cheese fries; you can't find anything quite like them outside Philly!
Is there a favorite book that influenced you that I could add to my FAVORITE HEROINES section on my website? Asking me to select a favorite novel is asking me to pick a favorite star! I loved Gone with the Wind, Middlesex, A Voice in the Wind, Bridge to Terabithia, and The Glass Castle.