Q:Are you deaf? Please explain your family background.
I am profoundly deaf. I was born deaf, a “rubella baby,” of hearing parents. My mother was exposed to the German-measles (rubella) virus while she was pregnant with me. I was a normal baby, but by the time I’d reached toddlerhood (when hearing babies are energetically babbling, playing with sounds, and forming their first words), I was still “quiet.” My family thought I was “shy.” I was diagnosed as deaf when I was 18 or so months old–that is, my mother finally realized that I couldn’t hear. My folks, of course, took it very hard. They went through all the stages: denial, grief, anger.
My parents divorced when I was 8, so I grew up with my mother and younger brother and sister–Mark and Terri.
Q:Anyone else in your family deaf?
No. I’m the only one.
Q:Do they know sign language?
My mother learned some signs and fingerspelling, as did Terri and Mark; Lexie knows a little. (Unfortunately, I don’t get to see her often.) I’d have to say that aside from them, nobody in my family knows sign language. Mainly, I’ve relied on speechreading skills to communicate with them. However, I NEVER use my voice. When I communicate with my family or other hearing persons, I whisper–I form the words, but I don’t turn the volume on. I would never take a speaking role onstage. So I guess you could call me “nonspeaking Deaf.” (I was considered for the role of Orin in the original Broadway production of Children of a Lesser God.)
Q:Where are you from, and what schooling did you have?
My family lived in Indianapolis, and that was my first lucky break. I was enrolled at Indiana School for the Deaf when I was 3, and began learning to sign immediately. I recall the first time I entered the classroom–the teacher was showing me around. As in many other nursery-level classrooms, there were drawings of familiar things, pets, and objects posted around the room, with the corresponding word in large letters–but there was also a diagram of the corresponding sign. The first one I saw was “dog.” I was excited to see that–to realize that these things could be expressed and described by signs! I was exceedingly lucky to be enrolled in a good program, which ultimately evolved into a first-rate “Bilingual-Bicultural” one. Of course, I was subjected to a stiff dose of speech/auditory training–a traumatic experience for me, as I had a brutal speech therapist of the old “smack-’em-when-they-mispronounce” school. I hated it.
Still, I became a proficient speechreader. I won a speechreading contest when I was 7, and got to ride around the Indianapolis 500 track on the lap of the great Mario Andretti.
I boarded at ISD for several years, so, of course, I picked up ASL quickly. ASL is truly my first language, although I consider myself bilingual. I’m good at switching modes, depending on whom I’m communicating with–to Pidgin Sign English, Signed English, or ASL.
During my high-school years at ISD, I took many advanced-level courses for which I had to read a mountain of books and write reports. In one advanced literature course, all the other students dropped out, and I was the only one left, so I worked with the teacher one-to-one. But it was real punishment–I had to polish off several books a month. Too much.
My favorite books are Frank Herbert’s Dune series, James Clavell’s Shogun, and Ann Rice’s books (I’ve read them all)–particularly Interview with a Vampire and Tale of the Body Thief.
I was the valedictorian of my class at ISD (’77). In my speech, I told the audience that I had “no words of wisdom” to impart, as I was just setting out. In April 1997, I was invited back to give a speech at the Sesquicentennial festivities. I told the audience what I’d said at Commencement, and added that I felt I now had some “words of wisdom” to impart. I told them about my experiences as a publisher and community activist. Got a good response, too.
Q:What college did you go to?
Although I could have attended Gallaudet, I chose National Technical Institute for the Deaf at Rochester Institute of Technology. I decided against Gallaudet because of the conformity factor. I wanted something different. NTID has a diverse population of deaf students–mainstreamed, residential-school, oral, ASL, Signed English, hard-of-hearing, minority, a good variety. Deaf students at RIT can take advantage of the array of “mainstream” courses. It could be frustrating, as they didn’t always offer the support services they were supposed to, but challenging, too. Anyway, that’s how I came to Rochester.
I got involved in the NTID theater program, and my spirits just took flight. I loved it. At ISD, I’d studied several Shakespeare plays in English class, and we performed passages in ASL. One thing led to another . . .
I was involved in 14 NTID productions. My first role was as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. (That’s where I got my current sign-name.) While working on The Fantasticks (my second play), I met a hearing RIT student, Tom Connor, who was doing voice. We became great friends, and I taught him how to sign. We later collaborated on several projects, including an experimental musical/sign-play which we produced.
Later I became a resident assistant and House Manager for the Performing Arts Department. It was a very busy time for me–but fruitful.
Q:What was your major in college?
I majored in social work and minored in filmmaking/photography.
Q:What led to your becoming a publisher?
I’d been actively involved with media since I was at Indiana School for the Deaf. I edited the school paper, The Reflector. When I was at the Jr. NAD Youth Leadership Camp, I edited its student publication, The Daily Drum.
In Fall 1981, I founded the Student Communications Center at NTID, because I wanted Deaf students to have hands-on experience producing and publishing a newspaper, and creating TV programming. The idea was to have an up-to-date media center run by NTID students, in much the same way as the “Little Paper Family” (Deaf periodicals of the second half of the 19th and earlier part of the 20th century) involved Deaf people in every aspect of the publication process–writing, proofing, layout, design, typesetting, printing, binding, and mailing. Even though many NTID students were majoring in Printing Production Technology, NTID had no student-run publications. Its glossy quarterly magazine, NTID Focus, had no student involvement. It was even printed by an outside company.
So I got some friends together and trained them, and we started the SCC, developed a newspaper, Perspectives, and a TV network (which started broadcasting after I graduated). After I left NTID, SCC collapsed and was abolished. But some of the people I worked with at SCC continued to work with me on my new venture–my own independent media company.
After I graduated, I produced and directed a pilot magazine-format TV program, Deaf Magazine. It aired in June 1984 on Rochester’s local ABC affiliate. There were segments about a Deaf swimmer, a Deaf priest, a Deaf-Blind convention, and local relay services. It drew unanimously favorable response. I funded it myself, by the way. I wanted to continue it–I drew up a detailed prospectus and budget estimates and all–but I couldn’t find the corporate underwriting I needed. All the available corporate funds, it seems, were going towards the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. No funding, no TV program. It wasn’t a total loss, though. It led to my starting DEAF LIFE.
When I produced Deaf Magazine, I formed my own company, now called MSM Productions, Ltd. That has evolved from a secondhand card table, two chairs, one Macintosh and an ImageWriter, to a well-equipped multimedia office with a Mac network, servers, scanners, and modems.
Q:How did you come up with
I started DEAF LIFE because I wanted to raise money to produce a TV series. It took off on its own path, of course. I wanted to publish a commercial, slick-format magazine for both deaf and hearing readers–something that Deaf Culture/ASL readers AND hearing readers could enjoy. I wanted it to be a commercial venture–to carry ads for mainstream products like Coca-Cola, Toyota, and Gap jeans. That hasn’t happened yet, but I haven’t given up! We do have several good loyal advertisers, and are getting a nice diversity–software, for example.
Our desire was to produce a magazine that could stand next to TIME and People Weekly–to be just as good, just as attractive. Actually, considering I run a “shoestring” company, I’ve gotten indications that DEAF LIFE has surprisingly wide influence.
I chose the title DEAF LIFE because Deaf people have an expression to indicate acceptance of being Deaf as a way of life or reality: “Deaf life, that.”
Q:What were your biggest obstacles/
frustrations in getting DEAF LIFE started?
The worst obstacles have been several individuals who are out to destroy my name, simply because they’ve misunderstood my motives. My motive in starting DEAF LIFE is to show good examples of how Deaf people who rely on ASL can lead rich, positive, and productive lives. Some members of the Deaf Community are jealous of my success as a businessman and publisher. I am dealing with a widespread disease called “Crab Theory.” My team and I have suffered enormously because of it.
My success wasn’t handed to me. I earned my reputation for quality. I worked hard for it. And I continue to work hard for it every day.
Money is the most obvious obstacle, so let’s count that a strong second. I started DEAF LIFE out of my own pocket, with help from friends. I received no grants, no assistance from SBA. But as time has passed, my company has been able to earn more, and reinvesting in improving our services to the community, and undertaking more projects.