13 August 2013

Deaf and Smart Series: Mental Health Therapist

A lot of the impetus for starting Redeafined came from a frustration that deaf people are often portrayed as broken or "less than"; the mainstream media loves to cover deaf people as spectacle--when they're getting their cochlear implants activated or signing songs in ASL-- doing things that mesh with the interests of a hearing culture, but most hearing people are never exposed to deaf people succeeding in "normal," everyday life. The idea behind the "Deaf and Smart" series is to showcase deaf people who've taken various educational and personal paths and have full, successful lives, lives that are not hindered by "disability," but rather augmented by bilingualism and dual cultural experience.Recently we chatted with Dru Balsley, a mental health therapist at the Walden School. Thanks, Dru!

Redeafined: Many of Redeafined's pieces focus on education options for deaf children. Can you talk a little bit about your education growing up?
Dru: My education growing up was.... what's the word? Eclectic. My parents had me change school so many times for various reasons. First I went to Boston School for the Deaf, to basically learn language. I was maybe a year old. However, there were things going on that my mom wasn't comfortable with, so she enrolled me in an oral pilot program which focused mostly on speech therapy. I wasn't crazy about that since we weren't allowed to sign. It was also around the same time my speech therapist told my parents that if they ever wanted me to use my voice, they shouldn't sign with me.

But my parents realized I was missing the social component, so they shopped around and found a Deaf program at South Shore Education Collaborative in Norwell, which was about 45 minute drive. At the time I was only six. I actually started at their summer camp. I stayed there until halfway through 3rd grade. I was already in classes with older Deaf kids, and my education wasn't going anywhere which frustrated my parents. So they had me mainstreamed at my hometown elementary school.

I loved going to Fisher School-- I was the cool 3rd grader who sat with the 4th graders on the yellow bus! My brothers and sister were a year and half older so I rode with them. But in our school system, elementary school ends at 4th grade, which meant I transferred to Johnson Middle School. Again, that was fun, riding my bike to school. I didn't know many Deaf people who did that. But it was also the age where I was starting to get lonely a lot. I couldn't keep up with others lipreading. I had an interpreter in my class. Once she was out for a few weeks due to an infection and my mom had to interpret for me. She even sat with me at lunch! Other kids thought she was awesome because she brought Hershey kisses for everybody! But recesses were HARD for me. I even had girls tell me that it took up too much time to tell me what was happening. "It's not important," was a common phrase I heard.

Again, my parents wanted me to have that social aspect of school, so they shopped around and found EDCO. They had a mainstreamed program at a middle school and high school (Newton North High School). This was perfect for me since I was able to continue being mainstreamed with interpreters but had friends I could chat with during lunches, or even classes if somebody joined me. I stayed there until high school graduation.It was difficult for my parents finding that perfect balance that many take for granted when their child is a hearing kid. But I think we turned out okay!

Redeafined: I'll say so! It's great that your parents were so invested in getting you a good education.
Dru: My dad was a teacher which helps. And we had an AMAZING LEA in our town. She made sure we got everything, even a bus to pick me up after swim practices when they ended at 5 PM.

Redeafined: And you mentioned that your mom was interpreting for you briefly. Did your whole family learn ASL?
Dru: Yes, they did, but like I mentioned earlier, the speech therapist advised them to stop if they ever wanted me to speak. So right now it's mostly home sign language. But we all understand each other and talk about practically everything together. My parents have always made sure that we were able to communicate, in whichever form we could. They refused to be content with superficial conversations.

Redeafined: It sounds like they were very supportive.
Dru: Oh absolutely. They really believed in me and they were also very honest with me. My Dad was always clear in his belief that I could go far but with the understanding that I would have to work hard. He was realistic about barriers I would have to overcome, but refused to let me give in to them. My grandmother's favorite motto was "Focus, focus, focus".It really shaped my perspective of how a child, Deaf or not, should be raised. Now, I'm not a parent, but I do work with people and see the impact parents have on children, both positive and negative. I'm incredibly blessed that my parents were amazing influences.

Redeafined: Where do you go to college?
Dru: I went to Gallaudet University for undergrad. In fact my mom and grandmother were huge advocates for Gallaudet. They're hearing but they also understood the importance of getting an education without any barriers. It was also my chance to have 4 years where I could truly be myself. I went to Bridgewater State University for my Master's degree. A complete 180 from Gallaudet, but one of the best decisions I've ever made.

Redeafined: So what made you decide to study social work?
Dru: Actually, it’s psychology.

Redeafined: Oops!
Dru: That’s okay, people do it all the time. Well a lot of things. While I had great parents, I've also had a lot of ups and downs in my personal life... several due to communication barriers, like those girls who made me feel like I wasn't worth their time. I guess I wanted to do my part in making sure that nobody else felt that way. And I knew there was no way I could ever become a teacher-- they still have homework! [laughs]

But seriously.... I saw it as a chance to work with people and help them realize their self worth. I’m not saying I can make them realize it, but maybe I can at least guide them and show people that I believe in them. That's the least I can do and that's why I got into psychology. Also people's minds are fascinating. I had an incredible professor for Psychology 101, Dr. Robert "Skip" Williams. He challenged me in my classes and surprised me with what psychology was on the first day.

He showed us what the bystander effect was. He had a physical disability so he used crutches, and he was shorter than an average person. Our classroom was an auditorium style, so he was walking down the stairs holding a lot of stuff. Students were sitting around staring at each other. Then he put everything on a table and began dragging it to the center. Again everybody sat and watched. You could sense that we were thinking "do we go and help him?" But we didn't want to embarrass him and suggest that he couldn't do things independently. But what if he really needed help? Then finally my friend jumped up and helped him. Dr. Williams faced the class with a grin on his face and explained that we all looked at each other for cues about what to do. We didn't want to be singled out for the responsibility, and expected somebody else to take care of it.

The most famous example of this is Kitty Genovese murder in Boston, where neighbors watched her being stabbed and did nothing because they saw each other and assumed the other would call the cops, at least.
That was my hook.

Redeafined: Yeah, I've read about that case, but it's cool to have it played out in front of you like that. Sounds like a good teacher.
Dru: One of the best. He also taught Crime and Punishment; that was probably one of my all time favorite classes!

Redeafined: It's great that you've found a subject and a career that you're passionate about. Can you talk a little bit about your job now?
Dru: Sure thing. I'm a mental health therapist at Walden School, a residential treatment program at The Learning Center for the Deaf. We work with kids with emotional and mental difficulties. My job includes individual therapy, family work, case management, developing individualized treatment plan with the team for the program. Crisis intervention is also a part of the job, which can be difficult. But I have an amazing team with who acts as an incredible support network-- they help me out with a difficult case, and make sure I'm taking care of myself so I don't get burnt out. It is a fun job that constantly challenges me.

Redeafined: Can you describe a typical day, or maybe one of many routes a day could take?
Dru: I'll come in, check my emails--try my best to answer what I can. Often staff members will email the program looking for feedback. Emails also serve as an informational center for us, finding out how our kids are doing. Then I go and meet with my kids, either for an individual session or observations in their classroom. It depends on the student, since they all have different needs. It goes back and forth between sessions, paperwork including treatment plans, progress notes, progress reports and other reports we have to write.

Often I'll call or email a student's parent/ caregiver/ guardian. I also have several meetings scheduled through out the week with various team members. It's all centered on how to improve our treatment approach for the student.

Redeafined: And your work there goes toward your license?
Dru: Yes, I'm more than halfway through my hours toward Licensed Mental Health Counselor.
I already passed the test two years ago and once I complete my hours, I'll apply for the license. I'm really excited about that!

Redeafined: That sounds really exciting! Will you get a different kind of job after that?
Dru: Nope, I plan on staying at Walden School for awhile. Maybe someday later down the road I might want to look into a private practice, but not anytime soon! The school actually requires the clinical team to be licensed, and they hired me with the understanding that I'll earn my license.

Redeafined: If you were to tell people who don't know much about deaf people, deafness or deaf culture the most important thing they need to know, what would it be?
Dru: Being Deaf does not mean that we're any less of a human being. Also being Deaf actually allows us to become a member of another community that thrives on communication and being understood. My parents understood that and have told me that while they had a hard time when they first found out I was Deaf, they realized they were blessed because I introduced them to a whole new world they never knew existed. As a Deaf person, I can travel to another place and see somebody signing, and chances are we'll strike up a conversation, often about where we're from and our involvement in the Deaf community.

This is a bad analogy, but it's almost as if the whole world is a bar for the Deaf, and we're able to chat with the person sitting next to us, simply because they're Deaf. Now this doesn't mean we always want that--we also enjoy our anonymity at times.

Redeafined: Okay, Last one. What do you like to do on your day off?
Dru: Sleep in! Mmm.. read, cook, write on my blogs (I've got one for cooking and running barefoot) Run barefoot! Yoga, and of course collecting National Park Stamps! Hanging with Alex, my husband, is probably my favorite activity, especially if we incorporate one of the other activities I've said!

Check out Dru's blogs at
 www.cookingwithdru.wordpress.com and http://drusnakedfeet.wordpress.com!

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