Both Carolyn McCaskill and her younger sister, Angela McCaskill, became Deaf in early childhood. Carolyn helped her sister master American Sign Language (ASL) and supported her academic efforts. The McCaskill sisters are the first Deaf Black women to receive PhD degrees from Gallaudet University.
Alexandra Wang: What inspired you to go into ASL, Deaf culture studies and advocacy?
Carolyn McCaskill: I was the Coordinator of Minority Achievement and Multicultural Programs at Pre-College at Gallaudet University from 1991-1996. I provided workshops on multicultural curriculum. As I learned more about diverse cultures it helped broaden my horizon.
I was inspired to enter the field of Deaf Studies after someone sent me the job application. I felt like it was a message from the Universe to move on to a different position. I applied and was offered an assistant professor position. I have been teaching in the ASL & Deaf Studies Department for 22 years. I am now a full professor.
Alexandra Wang: As a counselor for Deaf clients and Deaf students, what were some of your experiences with school counselors?
Carolyn McCaskill: I enjoyed working as a counselor with Deaf students. Seeing the students improve their decision-making skills, set their goals and make healthy choices were rewarding. Deaf students need to know that someone cares about their well-being, as well as their social, emotional and mental growth.
Alexandra Wang: You explained that you and your sister became Deaf at a young age and lacked the guidance of a role model. What were some beliefs and attitudes you grew up with about Deafness and the Deaf Community?
Carolyn McCaskill: I grew up with the belief that Deaf people are not normal and they need to be fixed. I grew up with the belief that Deaf people were incapable of succeeding. These views are negative and pathological. They fail to view Deaf people in a positive light. They look at Deaf people as Disabled and focused on the hearing loss rather than the individual.
Alexandra Wang: How have these negative and pathological views changed in your own family?
Carolyn McCaskill: After seeing my success and that of my sister, my family members have changed their views of Deaf people over the years. Some close friends who have also overcome barriers against all odds. They have seen Deaf people do everything but hear.
Alexandra Wang: You are an expert on Black ASL and Black Deaf Culture. How do these differ from ASL and other kinds of Deaf cultures?
Carolyn McCaskill: Culture and language are inseparable. You can’t have one without the other. Deaf people learned Deaf culture from socializing with each other at the Deaf schools, clubs and churches.
Black ASL is a distinct variety of ASL. It was created by the Black Deaf community as a result of school segregation that occurred in the South. Black Deaf people learned Black culture from their families and community. They incorporated Black culture in their signing.
Alexandra Wang: How can Deaf History and Black Deaf History be included in the school curriculum?
Carolyn McCaskill: Deaf History and Black Deaf History can be included in the school curriculum by sharing information about diverse Deaf people who have made contributions to society in various areas. There are Deaf teachers, administrators. researchers, counselors, artists, business owners, lawyers, etc.
To raise awareness about Deaf History, you have to tell our story. Invite Deaf people as guest speakers. Post information on the Bulletin Board or write a profile of a Deaf person in the school’s newspaper.
Alexandra Wang: What would your advice be for another Black Deaf woman experiencing challenges?
Carolyn McCaskill: My advice would be to find a mentor. A mentor would listen and support you as well as give guidance. Set your goals and objectives, and do not give up!
Alexandra Wang: How would you advise Deaf people and those who are in the Deaf Community and Black Deaf Community to explain to others, such as medical professionals, that they see Deafness as a cultural identity rather than a defect or illness to be cured?
Carolyn McCaskill: I would advise Deaf people to explain to medical professionals that they want to be accepted as human beings. We are individuals with different needs, just as they are. We do not want to be fixed. We are not one-size-fits-all. We are diverse and have different needs.
Alexandra Wang: As a school counselor, how would you advise other school counselors to help Deaf students and their families, especially Black Deaf families?
Carolyn McCaskill: I think it is important for the counselor to get to know the families by making home visits. This shows that you care about the overall well-being of the student. If possible, talk to the parents, grandparents, relatives, and siblings. This way you have a holistic grasp of and approach to the family dynamic.
Alexandra Wang: What can society do overall to support the Deaf Community and Black Deaf community in particular?
Carolyn McCaskill: Society can support the Deaf Community and the Black Deaf Community by making sure programs are accessible and inclusive. They can provide ASL interpreters for service and programs. Invite Deaf people to serve on programs as well. Give them a voice in the decision-making process. Let them make contributions like everybody else. In short, treat them as the fully-functioning members of society they truly are.
This interview was originally taken by Alexandra Wang for MadameActivist and has been republished under a creative commons license.