Exclusive interviews with contemporary newsmakers                  

Julie Rems-Smario
Advocate for our language and civil rights

Julie Rems-Smario is Founding Executive Director of DeafHope, head of School and Community Resources in CSD-Fremont’s Outreach Services, and President of California Association of the Deaf. Her involvement in these three organizations reflects her great passions: the rights of abused Deaf women and children, the language rights of Deaf children, and political activism.

A “military angel,” Julie Rems was born deaf into a well-traveled family. Serving in the Coast Guard, her father, Mike Rems, met her mother, Connie Sajurjo, while he was stationed in Viveiro, Galicia, Spain. They eloped in Naples, then moved to Long Beach, California, her birthplace, then when she was two, relocated to Miami, where her brother Tony was born, then moved to Union City, near CSD, then located in Berkeley. Then to Yorktown, Virginia. When Mike retired, they decided to move back to the Bay Area, and settled in Hayward.
When she was two, the family realized that she was deaf, and enrolled her in the correspondence program of the John Tracy Clinic, the start of her long, frustrating stint in oral schooling.

By this time, CSD had relocated to Fremont, a well-publicized move, and Julie, who was attending the Aurally Handicapped program at Hayward High School and had friends attending CSD, wanted to transfer there, but was discouraged from doing so. The AH teachers told her “that it was for students who failed mainstream schools . . . or had behavioral issues. I knew that this was a lie.” She learned, firsthand, the truth behind the smiling mask of Oral education.

By the time she was a junior at HHS, she set her sights on CSUN, “simply because it was the only university that sent recruiters for the National Center on Deafness to prospective students three years in row: Lil Skinner, Barbara Boyd, Bob Sidansky, and Linda Greenwood. CSUN even had a Deaf Studies Department led by Dr. Larry Fleischer. I knew that it was where I wanted to go. It was the best decision I ever made..” Dissatisfied the hearing sorority she had joined, she and other Deaf women sounded a new one . . . still thriving. “This experience taught me to always trust my instincts. It also taught me that if I see gaps in services, be the solution. “
Her mentors at CSUN included “Marcella Meyer, Nancy Popovich, Sheri Ann Farinha, Freda Norman, Barbara Boyd, Larry Fleischer, Herb Larson, Roz Rosen, Nathie Marbury, Bernard Bragg . . . and the list just goes on. CSUN still had the National Leadership Training Program, so it was just teeming with so much leadership talent. They gave me quality time of mentorship. Their wisdom and experience truly contributed to who I am now.

“Winning the Miss CSUN Pageant led me to winning Miss Deaf California Pageant at CAD, which led me to the NAD. I also got to know Dr. Roz Rosen when she was President of NAD because her daughter, Suzy Rosen, was one of my roommates while she was studying law at UCLA. This was the beginning of my association with activism and politics.”

In 1990, she entered the Miss Culver City Scholarship Pageant, and despite the rules barring onstage assistance, insisted on having an interpreter. Pageant officials told her that it would be unfair to the other contestants and would hurt her chances. Nonetheless, she was voted first runner-up. The rule was enforced in the Miss California Pageant. This led to a lawsuit against the Miss America Pageant organization. Sheri Ann Farinha brought in renowned civil-rights lawyer Gloria Allred, and the Miss America Pageant system got a major shakeup. “They did attempt to save face by creating a path for Heather Whitestone to become the first deaf woman to wear the Miss America crown.

“And through this experience, I became a feminist. I saw the politics and the gender oppression. I also finally understood how the pageants were sexualizing women. Because of this experience, I never wanted my daughter, Jessica, to be part of this culture, so I never shared my pageant experience with her. Thankfully, nowadays women have so many more avenues to opportunities.” Rems-Smario was instrumental in changing the NAD’s Miss Deaf America pageant into a Youth Ambassador Program. (And the first two winners are from California!)

Her first job was at Five Acres (the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society of Los Angeles), in the program for abused Deaf children. “It was a pivotal point in my life, advocating for women.” Deaf women were pressured to leave their abusive partners or have their children removed. “There was no pressure on the abusers to stop abusing. And there were no shelters for Deaf women to escape to. Deaf women were set up for failure in the Los Angeles system, which was true everywhere else. Without a place to go, they would lose their children to the CPS. This vicious cycle that Deaf mothers got stuck in infuriated me.

“This job also exposed me to the legal system, to the CPS system, to the law-enforcement system, and so much more. This work also taught me about fundraising. I hosted the Deaf Services Program’s first fundraising event.

“After three years at Five Acres, I graduated with my MA in Deaf Education from CSUN and moved back to the Bay Area to have my first child, Jacob. Because I was a single mother, I lived with my parents for a year to help me get started while working at CSD in Fremont. I taught Deaf preschools at its program, now called Early Childhood Education. This job taught me so much about the importance of early language acquisition for Deaf children, and the effects of language deprivation. . . . there are many Oral failures, and zero ASL failures.

“While working at CSD, I married David Smario and had my second child, Joshua. But I missed my old job at Five Acres, and I liked teaching beyond the four walls of the classroom. So a month after Joshua was born, I enrolled at San Francisco State University (SFSU) for my second Master’s, in Rehabilitation Counseling with a focus on Marriage, Family, and Children’s Counseling. I interned at Catholic Charities Hearing Impaired Program, which no longer exists, and at Ohlone College.

“It was a wonderful experience to meet Deaf college students and to work with them on pursuing their dreams. The pay was wonderful, too. While working here, I was asked to go with four Deaf Bay Area women to Seattle for a training about domestic violence at Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services—which turned out to be a training to establish our own DV/SV agency.

“After the training, I went on maternity leave from Ohlone. One of my colleagues begged me to consider pursuing what I learned at ADWAS. This opportunity made me think about the Deaf mothers at Five Acres who had no place to go. I realized that this was an opportunity to create solutions.

“So I quit my job to focus on creating domestic and sexual-violence services, my era of trials and errors—which was my best teacher—to set up DeafHope along with seven other women. Shortly afterwards, I was hired as Executive Director.” That was in 2003. “I loved this job so much because I got to witness Deaf women empowered with more opportunities. They have advocates to work side-by-side with them, navigating through the legal, medical, and social-work system. They are no longer alone.

What I did notice is that the survivors who were bilingual, ASL and English, had become skilled self-advocates before contacting us. Several did not have bilingual upbringing, so they ended up being our long-term cases.

“During my time at DeafHope, I also discovered my love for making films and PSAs. I am extremely fortunate to have worked with many extremely talented young filmmakers to send powerful messages about DV/SV to the community, both Deaf and hearing, creating social changes and awareness to end DV/SV.” DeafHope has produced several effective PSAs on DV, SV, rape culture, consent, and trash talk.

Photo courtesy of Chris Hamilton

In Spring 2010, Assemblymember Tony Mendoza of Norwalk introduced Assembly Bill 2072 in the California State Senate without having solicited any input from Deaf-community leaders. The bill, promoting dissemination of biased information to parents of deaf babies, was supported by the California Coalition of OPTION Schools–a consortium of oral/AVT schools—while deliberately bypassing CSD. Even though over a hundred Deaf people testified in opposition to the bill while only about 30 persons, mostly hearing, testifying in support, the bill passed the Assembly and was introduced to the Senate floor. “This hit me hard, realizing that ‘power in numbers’ didn’t apply in this case. The OPTION Schools bloc used their hearing and financial privileges to go behind the Deaf leaders’ backs and pull this bill. I couldn’t sleep at all that night, realizing the ramifications. It reminded me of the 1880 Congress of Milan. We are now enduring the Second Wave of Oralism.”

Together with Sheri Farinha and other leaders, Rems-Smario helped organize the California Deaf Newborn Identification & Advocacy Stakeholder Coalition (CDNIAS) to oppose AB 2072. CDNIAS succeeded in having ASL-supportive language appended to the bill. In September, after passing the Senate floor, AB 2072 was vetoed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, “only because of objections by the California audiologists. “It made me realize the threat to our language, ASL, and our schools. My loyalties have become divided because I cherish supporting our DV and SV survivors, and I also cherish our language and schools.” In 2011, encouraged by Dr. Hank Klopping, she took a position in the Outreach Department of CSD-F, stepped down as DeafHope’s Executive Director, but stayed on as a board member, actively involved in its outreach campaign.

“Last November, at the last moment, I decided to throw in my hat and run for President at the California Association of the Deaf conference in Riverside. Something amazing happened there: the CAD Board 2013-15 became the first all-women board in CAD’s 107 years of history. The majority of us are educators so our platform is Language Equality—ASL and English.”

She helped kill another potentially harmful bill, AB 455, which was amended by supporters of OPTION Schools without input from the Deaf community. It was quickly withdrawn by its author, Assemblymember Jose Medina. “The Deaf people had spoken, and Medina listened. I applaud Medina for understanding the Deaf community and responding to us.”

She’s working on a new campaign, Language Equality and Acquisition for Deaf Kids (LEAD-K), to provide benchmarks for language learning to benefit young Deaf children. “It is time for accountability to end language deprivation. We have a plan of action ready to implement during the next 12 months, which I am very excited about. Be on the lookout on September 18th!”

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