Exclusive interviews with contemporary newsmakers                  

Steven Hamerdinger
Mental-health advocate and administator

Steve Hamerdinger is Director of the Deaf Services division of Alabama Department of Mental Health—a department that was established in 2003 in response to a class-action ADA lawsuit filed by the mother of a deaf man, who was frustrated at the lack of available and accessible mental-health services for Deaf people. Hamerdinger is a major reason why Alabama has taken the lead in providing top-quality statewide mental-health services, including establishing of standards for certified MH interpreters.

A veteran teacher, counselor, and presenter, Hamerdinger is noted for his ability to convey complicated subjects in a clear, easily understood way. He is also noted for his sense of humor. Indeed, he’s performed as a stand-up comedian, using comedy to establish a bond with his audience, shake up their preconceptions, and make them think.

Some first-person comments and excerpts from our interview:

On his responsibilities: Essentially it is my job to make sure that deaf people in Alabama with mental illness can get services they need.* We have direct services and we also do a lot of consulting, advocating, teaching, and so on. Our philosophy is that people who are deaf and have mental illness do best with staff who sign. We are pragmatic enough that we can’t do it all and that we depend on hearing people in the system to work with us as well. For that reason we have developed the country’s first standards for mental health interpreters that have the force of law.

People call us for all over the country. Unfortunately, you have to be an Alabama resident to take advantage of our services, but we do consult with providers everywhere. The staff here is great. They are the ones who make this program work.

On mental illness and the Deaf community: One of the reasons that [Junius Wilson’s] story resonates is that it shows a primeval fear all deaf people have that they could be locked away too. In fact, in Missouri, where was before I came here, things are really bad now. The difference between Missouri and Alabama is simply having an active and committed deaf community. In Missouri the Mental Health Department there does “just enough” to pacify people without actually developing effective programs. [Here in Alabama,] I know I have the deaf community backing me in an active way. It’s not just talk.
One in five people will experience mental illness in their live time. Think about it. That basically means mental illness touches everyone’s life.
One message I hope that you will convey, though, is that mental illness is like any other disease. It’s controllable and treatable. I am pleased that Congress passed mental health parity recently

On developing a nationwide standard: There’s no national standard, but there are some good documents out there that talk about appropriate services. NAD just put out two good position papers that my staff had a hand in developing. RID has a paper on mental health interpreting that my staff was involved in writing.

On his comedy routines and how oralism promotes dragon breath: Comedy is a way of dealing with tragedy in life. I do it for any audience, really. Usually in connection with Mental Illness Awareness events, sometimes Deaf groups. I don’t do much of it. I do a lot more lecturing.

The stuff I do is based on some of the weirder things I have seen. Nothing that most other deaf people have not experienced, but taking things out to their most absurd conclusion is usually good for a laugh or two. I have learned a lot about halitosis from people who think I lip read if the talk R-E-A-L S-L-O-W and make BIG mouth movements. Please tell your readers to cut back on the garlic if they do that. I like what’s left of my hair.

On his Baby Boomer childhood in Maryland: I was born at 5:55 on a stormy January day in 1955, and my mother was furious because I cause her to miss her soaps. She didn’t want to miss seeing the evening TV programs, so she made sure I popped out during a commercial break. I was born normal until the nurse dropped me on my head while cleaning me up. That is way I am so weird now. (You can believe or disbelieve as you wish. The truth is sometimes stranger than fiction!) I was the youngest of three kids. Actually, I was an “accident.” My brother {David, 1937-2005] and sister [Susan, b. 1943] were much older than I. My brother was so disgusted with me that he joined the air force as soon as I came home and spent the next 30 years running radars on the Defense Early Warning Line. (He said he couldn’t stand the screaming.) There is a history of hereditary deafness in my family and it was decided that was the reason. So I was born with a progressive hearing loss. By the time I was in first grade I was deaf.

No signers [in the family]. The doctors told my folks that if they let me sign I would grow up dumb. This is an exact quote from the Doctor at Children’s Hospital in DC, “Smart deaf people don’t need to sign.” Now, my mom and dad did make sure I could read, and for that I will be grateful to my dying day. My other heroes are Steven Wright and George Carlin!

On getting through “mainstreaming”: Being a bookworm with no social life helped. That and a gift for bullsh**ting my way through anything. I went to public school until I was a junior in high school. On my 16th birthday, I walked into the principal’s office and said, “I quit!” I suspect he was not exactly heartbroken. He gave me a paper bag and took my name off the assigned seat in detention hall.

On post-high-school life: My folks were less than overjoyed After the dust settled, they gave me three choices: go back to school, get a job, or move out.

I had some pit stops along the way including a short stretch in the hospital to detox. This was the late ‘60s—early’ 70s, you know. It was an interesting trip on more ways than one! (The stuff kids get these days makes my trip seem like the old “A” rides at Disneyland.) A free tip for your readers: Mixing a handful of Seconals with a fifth of Wild Turkey is a bad idea!

I took a job as a janitor in a church near home, (called the First Baptist Church of Riverdale—that was before they moved it to Largo). It had a Deaf ministry, although I couldn’t sign. That was a pretty important turning point in life. Good people. They cared about me and didn’t push me. Someone from the church hooked me up with VR, and [the VR counselor] thought I was worth trying to salvage.

Good old VR. I love that Mary Switzer!
Pity that Congress is so busy buying bridges to nowhere that they have to de-fund VR.

I think we’ll have to fight—get Deaf people and the disability-rights advocates that raised such a ruckus for Section 504 to mobilize again.
The feds’ answer is that “Hey, we have these cool one-stop shops now. You don’t need a special section on deafness.”

So the counselor was helpful?
I think so. I know I was instrumental in getting the poor guy back on bottle.

On being tested: [I was given] the full battery. My favorite was the psych assessment. My tester was a grad student. Young and gorgeous. I was, a hormone-mad teenager with this drop dead beautiful psych intern. Another free tip for your readers: when you are 16 and hormone mad, the whole damn Rorschach test looks like sex, “What’s this?” “Two butterflies having sex!” “Okay, what’s this?” “A hippo having sex with a giraffe!” It’s a wonder that I wasn’t put back in the psych ward!

Did she deal with it calmly?
Oh, yeah. She was great. Only blushed a dozen times. But after testing and all that, [the counselor] suggested that I consider going to Gallaudet College. I was admitted to the Class of 76. There’s a shout-out to the old gang! Now keep in mind I’m a 16-year old-freshman who can’t sign.

And you found your way to Kappa Gamma?
I was GDI.

GDI? Meaning?
God D***ed Independent. I have always been a rebel without a clue! Do you know who was teaching the first class I took on the first day I was on campus? Donald Padden! All I could think of was—What the hell do I do now?

What class was that?
Health class. At least I think that what it was. That was what was on the syllabus. He might have been teaching nuclear physics for all I knew.. I commuted for a couple of weeks then realized that if I was going to learn sign language I would have to be on campus. So I moved out of my parents’ house and moved onto campus and discovered a whole new life.

ASL, Deaf Culture, the Bisons, the Coffin Door, Shave Day?
That and college girls! I did OK. Made some good friends who helped me adjust. My buds were all from North Central U.S.—North Dakota, Montana, Iowa. Nice laid back people. I definitely fell in with the big-D deaf crowd.

So you created a new “Deaf and Proud of It” identity.
It fit better than the old “I’m just a hearing kid who can’t hear” identity did.

One thing that’s difficult for hearing people to understand is how Deaf people can enjoy being deaf . . .
It’s hard for people to get it. It really comes down to self-acceptance. “I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam,” quoth Popeye.

“We know what we are, but know not what we may be,” quoth Ophelia.
Exactly! You can see what I was paying attention to in English Lit class!

I’ve read autobiographical accounts by oralists who seem pleased with what they are (high-achieving sorts anyway), but I think ASL users have more fun.
I think people who accept who they are and make the best of the hand that they are dealt have the most fun.

To me it boils down to the old question of control: who controls deaf people‘s lives and destinies? Do we form a community or does Hearing society maintain control?
That is the battle of ages! Ever since Aristotle we have been feuding over that.

With the epidemic in pediatric cochlear implants, I worry about the well-being of all these deaf kids whose parents are preventing them from learning to sign and interacting with other deaf kids, or exploring that aspect of communication.
Don’t get the “either-or” mindset. Why not the “all of the above” approach? Why is it “cool” to teach hearing babies to sign but bad to teach deaf babies to sign? Why do implants and ASL have to be mutually exclusive? Wouldn’t the kid be ahead of the game with both?

That’s the stance of the Deaf Bilingual Coalition...even if you’ve decided to give your kid implants, let them have exposure to ASL too. But the problem is, as you may know, AGBell is aggressively promoting AVT as THE method, and I see a campaign to make sure that these kids don’t get exposed to signing and won’t be.
That’s nothing new. I owe the A. G. Bell Association a note of gratitude. Because of them, I will always have a job.

Traditionally, deaf people were classified with mentally ill, mentally incompetent, languageless, etc., so it’s easy to see that it’s an old problem. It’s not going to be something that you can whisk into a dustpan.
No it’s not. The thing that is frustrating is that society is creating generations of deaf kids with adjustment disorders and emotional problems.

On being a father: Erin lives with her mom here in Montgomery. She’s 15 going on 30 and thinks I’m dumb and her mother’s dumber. She already thinks I am an ATM.

Something wrong with that?
When she sends me am IM . . . “Hey, Dad!” I say “How much?”

Will that be cash, check, or credit card?
Strictly cash. Never give a kid your credit card.


*See www.mh.alabama.gov/MIDS.

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