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Muse enlightens OT students about Deaf community from a very personal place

By Luanne Williams

Just before Thanksgiving 2019, occupational therapy students at Wingate were oohing and aahing over a pound cake baked by classmate McKenzie Muse’s grandmother, Bobbie McKenzie. This fall, thanks to a 90-minute presentation by Muse, they were able to explore the Deaf culture that was a huge part of McKenzie’s identity and better equip themselves to meet the needs of deaf clients.

McKenzie, 87, died in April, after Muse had already committed to give the lecture as part of Wingate’s chapter of COTAD (Coalition of Occupational Therapy Advocates for Diversity). Although her professors told her she could cancel what they knew would be an emotionally difficult presentation, Muse said the topic was too important not to talk about.

“I feel incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to be part of the Deaf community because of my grandparents,” Muse said. “I want to honor them and continue to advocate for them, just like they did for us, through doing things like this culture presentation.”

Charles and Bobbie McKenzie

Charles and Bobbie McKenzie met as students at the North Carolina School for the Deaf and were married for nearly 60 years before his death in 2014. From the time Muse and her twin sister were in kindergarten, they and their Mom lived with her grandparents, who drove the girls back and forth to school, supported them in all their activities and took them along to gatherings sponsored by the Deaf community.

Well beyond learning how to sign, Muse soaked in the Deaf culture. “Being with them and their friends gave me insight into the community, the challenges of it but also how proud people were to be part of it too,” she says.

While studying for her bachelor’s degree in health promotion at Appalachian State University, Muse took American Sign Language classes and served as president of the Sign Language Club. When she got married, she had an interpreter at her wedding to make sure deaf guests could take part in the entire experience.

“Things like that were always really important to me, that theme of being inclusive,” Muse said. “That came from growing up with my grandparents, which gave me a unique perspective.”

McKenzie Muse

At Wingate, she found the opportunity to share that perspective to help broaden the definition of diversity in the minds of her classmates. 

“When we think about diversity, it’s usually race and culture that come to mind, but rarely do we think about the Deaf culture,” Muse said. “I don't view deafness as a disability. Rather, I see it as an opportunity to immerse oneself into a beautifully rich culture, community and language.”

Muse began her presentation by explaining the words Deaf, deaf, hard of hearing and other similar terms. (The capital-D Deaf denotes people who have been deaf since before they learned to talk and who identify strongly with the close-knit Deaf community, typically using sign language as their preferred communication. Deaf with a lowercase d simply refers to the physical condition of having hearing loss.) Do not, Muse warned, refer to Deaf people as “hearing impaired,” as the descriptor implies there is something wrong with them.

Grandparents, a mom and two teen daughters stand in front of a Christmas tree.

As she discussed the history of residential schools for the deaf, at one time called “asylums” or “deaf and dumb” schools, Muse also shared some of her family’s personal history. Her “Nana” graduated with a trade degree in data entry and her “Papa” with a degree in printing. She worked for the Mecklenburg County tax office; he for the Charlotte Observer.

“Some things were different, but they engaged in daily occupations the same as we all do,” Muse says. “When we would go out to eat together, oftentimes I would notice others staring as we signed together, but our table was always filled with conversation, love and laughter.

“I'm proud of their education, careers and the love they shared with us. Nana was a fierce leader in the Deaf community, advocating for the North Carolina School for the Deaf and accessibility resources.”

Understanding Deaf culture

During her presentation, Muse answered questions about what life was like for her mother, who is hearing, to grow up with deaf parents. (What happens when a child is the only one who hears the doorbell? And how does that child learn to talk?). She gave pointers on how to respond to deaf individuals if you don’t know ASL. Among her tips: Don’t talk loudly and don’t talk for someone. Instead, let them take the lead, be patient and keep eye contact.

In another part of her presentation, she shared President Lincoln’s role in the establishment of Gallaudet University, the only accredited university for deaf students in the world, and talked about how the Civil Rights Movement inspired the Deaf community to press for equality, stressing the importance of interpreting services, closed captioning and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

She also told her classmates about characteristics of Deaf culture that could catch healthcare practitioners by surprise.

“Deaf communities are small and close-knit, and they discuss personal issues – money, bodily functions, health – very openly,” Muse says. “They can be very direct with their criticisms and personal remarks, all as a way to show caring.”

Muse’s grandmother was a perfect example. 

“I had to learn to understand that about her,” Muse says. “It was never with an intent to be rude; she was just very direct.”

“She grew up being taught if you don’t like something, speak up,” Muse says with a laugh, remembering Bobbie McKenzie’s habit of requesting a better table at a restaurant and the overly personal questions she would sometimes ask her granddaughters’ friends.

Muse also described behaviors, such as pointing, long introductions and prolonged goodbyes, that are perfectly acceptable in Deaf culture, though frowned upon elsewhere.

Although hearing practitioners shouldn’t take the liberty of trying to insert themselves into the Deaf community – typically only close family members of the Deaf are granted that privilege – they should educate themselves about the culture to better serve their clients, Muse says. And they should ask direct questions to determine how Deaf people want to communicate.

“OT is very client-centered,” Muse says. “We’re supposed to take time to get to know people, making sure to avoid the assumptions. If you are not sure how a person wants to communicate and interact, it is better to ask than to assume anything. And of course now, during Covid, we need to be thinking about things like wearing a mask with the clear window so they can see your mouth.”

She also highlighted the importance of OTs taking a holistic approach.

“For example, bad arthritis will make it hard for a deaf person to sign, or if they have low vision, it’s important to realize how it affects their ability to communicate,” Muse said.

Most of all, she hopes she and her classmates take the time and effort to ensure that clients get the best care possible.

“I think it’s important for people to educate themselves and to be advocates, whether it’s regarding the Deaf/deaf community or someone of a different race or ethnicity,” Muse says. “That’s why organizations like our Wingate COTAD chapter are so important to promote education, expanded worldviews and inclusion for people of all backgrounds.”

Learn more about studying Occupational Therapy at Wingate.

Dec. 11, 2020

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