American Sign Language Club hosts ‘Silent Night’

Jordan Harrison, Assistant Campus Editor

Northwestern’s American Sign Language Club hosted its first speaker Saturday, bringing deaf activist Karen Putz to campus to talk about accepting her identity as a deaf person and rediscovering her passions in life.

The event, “Silent Night,” began with performances by Lauren Putz, Karen Putz’s daughter, and her friend Keely Holtz. The duo, which performs under the name Ren and Keely, performed sign language interpretations of One Direction’s “Story of My Life” and Little Mix’s “Wings.”

Weinberg sophomore Marie Peeples, vice president of the ASL Club, also presented a sign language interpretation of the Robert Frost poem “Fire and Ice.”

Karen Putz spoke and signed simultaneously during her speech. She began her talk by describing her childhood. She and several of her family members grew up hard of hearing, and she got her first hearing aid at nine years old.

“I got my first hearing aid, and absolutely hated it,” she said. “It was just one hearing aid, and I never, ever showed it to anyone, because I was very ashamed, embarrassed, and the interesting thing is that I had no one to compare it to except for my family.”

She became completely deaf after a barefoot waterskiing accident when she was 19. After her accident, she said she had to decide whether to stay at home or go to college at Northern Illinois University. She chose college, and said she had a hard time adjusting to classes and social life.

“In this kind of auditorium, when the teacher is walking up and down and writing on the board and some student in row 53 is answering, it’s impossible for a deaf or hard of hearing person to follow,” she said.

But one day, Putz said, she accepted her deaf identity.

“That morning, I got up, and I put my hair in a ponytail, slapped on my hearing aid … got on the bus, and went to class,” she said. “I got on the bus and thought, wow, everybody’s looking at me. They weren’t.”

She said she had to “learn to be deaf” and came to see her deafness as a blessing.

“When you shift your paradigm of what means to be deaf, what it means to be hard of hearing, you shift it to something that’s normal and natural, and all of a sudden it’s not something to be fixed,” she said.

Four years ago, Putz rediscovered the passion that took her hearing – barefoot waterskiing – after seeing a clip from the “Today” show about a 66-year-old competitive barefoot waterskier.

She now serves as a board member for Hands & Voices, a national support organization for children who are deaf and hard of hearing, and she is the founder of its Illinois chapter.

Weinberg freshman Brittany Bair said she was interested in ASL because she has deaf grandparents, and enjoyed Putz’s talk.

“I thought the speaker was so inspiring,” she said. “Her stories were very funny and her outlook on life, even if being deaf or hard of hearing isn’t something that somebody you know has had to deal with, it’s really inspiring to hear.”

When describing the purpose of the ASL Club, Weinberg sophomore Katie Lalla, said some of the group’s goals are to expose to people to sign language, create a group of signers on campus, and create a welcoming, deaf-friendly environment on campus. She said the group is only a few years old, and Putz’s talk is the first big event the club has put on.

“Basically, as a club we want to spread the word about ASL, get people interested, give people a place to go when they want to learn sign language,” she said.

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