The University Record, June 3, 2002

Interpreter remembers each of her many ‘kids’

By Emily Hebert
University Record Intern

Smith chats with Custodian Carlos Lamus (Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services)
Rectangular picture frames cover the walls of Joan E. Smith’s office like wallpaper. Fitting together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, photographs of varying sizes take up every square inch of space. Smith, who is coordinator of services for deaf and hard of hearing students, even has pictures posted on the back of her door. Some are of very famous people—former President Bill Clinton and actor Edward James Olmos stare back. But Smith’s eyes roam easily over the shots of celebrities she has interpreted for at University-sponsored events to those photos of students that make up the majority of the gallery. Her gaze lands on one of the lesser known faces, that of a smiling young man.

“That is Jose Irizarry,” states Smith. “He was our first deaf student at U-M and he graduated in 1990.” When asked if she still keeps in touch with Irizarry, Smith lets out a laugh. “I just put away something I got in the mail from him,” she reveals, swiveling her chair to face the filing cabinet. Flipping through a rainbow of files, she pulls out a blue one. Although the office where Smith works has official records on each student, Smith keeps her own personal files. “I put their pictures, cards and ‘thank you’ notes in here,” she says as she opens Irizarry’s file. Included in the contents is a recent card from Irizarry announcing the birth of his second child.

Smith herself has seven children with husband, Bill, a retired General Motors employee. “I’m from a deaf family and had five deaf grandparents,” says Smith. “My deaf step-grandmother lived with us so all of our children but one spoke sign language.” At one time, two of Smith’s children, Jennifer and Jeremy, actually worked for her as interpreters. Smith points to a photograph of a “lovely woman” interpreting for Hilary Clinton when she spoke on campus in 1992. Speaking proudly of her daughter, who is now an aerobics guru and motivational speaker, Smith says that Jennifer was “more beautiful” than Clinton. But she adds enthusiastically that Clinton was a “great speaker.”

Smith also has a framed photograph of her son, Jeremy, shown interpreting for deaf children who came to U-M on a museum tour. Jeremy is now an advertising copywriter with Ogilvy & Mather in New York.

Smith also reflects upon another son—one who died prematurely. “My little boy died on Aug. 27, 1983,” Smith quietly states. “He had just turned six and was taken out of the house by a babysitter without my permission.” Taken along for a drive in the country with the babysitter and her friends, Smith’s son was killed in a car accident.

Devastated, Smith became homebound. When a friend set up an interview for her at Brighton Middle School as a sign language teacher, Smith told her friend that she was “not the least bit interested.” Despite her protests, Smith eventually went to the interview and landed the job. It was the first time she would get paid to interpret. Prior to working for Brighton Middle School she had worked as an administrator for a building company and as a writer for a small newspaper in her hometown of Pinckney, Mich. Although not always an interpreter by profession, Smith insists that she has always been an interpreter.

“I was a ‘freelance interpreter,’” she explains. “What that means is that my grandmother loaned me out for free.” At this, Smith doubles over with laughter and recounts how she was constantly sent out with her grandmother’s deaf friends.

From Brighton Middle School, Smith went on to work at Washtenaw Community College and Eastern Michigan University before being hired by the University in 1986. Smith was hired after the U-M accepted its first deaf student, Irizarry. Since becoming the first interpreter at the University, Smith has worked to attract more deaf students to the U-M. And her efforts have paid off. According to Smith, the University now averages 25 deaf students a year. “I believe, really wholeheartedly, that we have the best services in the country,” says Smith, citing the availability of interpreters and technological tools.

However, Smith believes that deaf students at U-M need more than mere technological assistance. “When I began working at U-M, I decided that the piece missing for deaf students was the social piece,” says Smith. So, Smith began to set up parties, inviting deaf students to her office to have pizza. Smith admits that, at first, students didn’t want to mingle. “They were all from different worlds and had much different interests.” Despite some initial trepidation, though, the pizza parties became a success. In fact, they were so successful that Smith decided to expand the parties and began inviting students to her own home for dinner. “A lot of people don’t think it’s a good idea to get that close to your students,” says Smith. “Maybe it’s true for other students, but it’s not true for deaf students. They need to feel comfortable and they need to be in a safe environment where it’s okay to misinterpret and misunderstand each other.”

Movie nights also became popular. Ordering first-run films from California, Smith would stage free screenings at Angell Hall’s Auditorium A. However, having both movie nights and pizza parties became costly. Initially paying out of her own pocket, Smith started accepting donations from relatives. But the financial burden still existed. Fortunately, the family of student Adam Miller began contributing. “Adam was sports editor at The Michigan Daily,” says Smith. “He loved coming to the pizza parties and movie nights.”

In 1999, Miller died from Neurofibromatosis (NF2), a genetic disorder that causes brain tumors. At the funeral, Miller’s parents, Alec and Marlene, asked that instead of buying flowers attendees contribute to Smith’s work. Consequently, Smith offered to set up the Adam Miller Fund. “I have collected $75,000 already in his name,” she says. “And let me tell you, you can buy a lot of pizzas with $75,000.”

Still, Smith thinks that there should be more to students’ extracurricular lives than pizza parties. “Students with disabilities should not just have to come for pizza with an old lady!” she exclaims, chuckling.

“Students should be able to join any group on campus and they should feel welcome,” she says. Smith believes that it is her job to help facilitate deaf students’ participation in student organizations.

“On our campus, we pay for interpreters to go to organization meetings,” Smith says, noting that at other colleges student organizations are expected to pay for interpreters themselves. Smith believes so strongly in providing students with interpreters that she went to a Hillel meeting with student Elesheva Soloff when no other interpreter was available. Smith also trained four students to be oral interpreters during Soloff’s sponsored trip to Israel.

Thankful for Smith’s assistance, Soloff recently presented her with The Alexander Graham Bell Association Meritorious Service Award at this year’s graduation dinner for deaf and hard of hearing students. Soloff announced that Smith’s nomination came from former students all across the country.

Smith says she doesn’t plan on retiring any time soon. Calling hers a “dream job,” she says that her husband, Bill, currently has his dream job as well. “He rides a Harley Davidson and so, for his retirement job, he works three hours a day at the Harley Davidson shop on Jackson Road,” says Smith. She leans in closer and gets a mischievous sparkle in her eye. “Do I ride on a Harley Davidson?” she asks, anticipating a question. “You bet your life I do.”

As she laughs at her confession, Smith’s phone begins to ring. Cutting the laughter short, Smith’s eyebrows start to furrow. “Oh, that’s Rebecca,” she says, her voice trailing off as she debates whether or not to answer. “Her name is Rebecca Alexander,” says Smith. “She’s from California and she’s calling for advice on what grad. school she should go to.”

Despite her advice-giving and continued support to both current and former students, Smith insists that her students have helped her more than she has them. “When my little boy died, if I had not been able to focus ‘out,’ I’d be dead,” she explains. “I couldn’t cope with the loss of that child. It’s just wonderful talking and remembering these great kids,” she adds, as she surveys the photographic landscape of her office. “I love them all.”


Technological services from the Services for Students with Disabilities Office

Specially equipped dorm rooms

These dorm rooms have visual, strobe-light fire alarms and vibrating alarm clocks.

Audi-See microphones

Audi-See is a microphone with a camera in it. During class, the professor wears this microphone so that the deaf student can read his/her lips from a hand-held monitor.

Computer Assisted Real Time (CART) recording services

Currently, the U-M employs five individuals to sit in with deaf students during their classes and type out lectures using CART.

Teletype (TTY) phones

There are teletype phones located at the Michigan Union and the U-M Hospital.

Closed captioning panels

Access, a local company contracted by the U-M, developed and built closed captioning panels. The panels have appeared at the 2001 and 2002 Spring Commencement ceremonies.