Karen Griffard Putz; mother of three deaf teenagers, competitive barefoot water skier, journalist, founder of a non-profit, early intervention provider, greeting card company distributor and prolific blogger…… and, she is deaf.
Karen is one of my first cyber friends. I met her a few days after joining Twitter.
If you ever have the pleasure to meet her in person, the first thing you notice is a radiant smile that reaches all the way up to her big brown eyes and that terrific energy! An energy fuelled by an extraordinary passion for life and a genuine belief that she can do anything – She is POSITIVE!
‘It has been a long process’ she confides: ‘I didn’t arrive in this place overnight’.
Karen’s journey has indeed been long; she lost some of her hearing at the age of seven following an illness with a high fever. Despite her young age, she became self-conscious and was determined to cover up her compromised hearing.
Through her childhood and teenage years she used a mixture of bluff and an ingenious system to guess what was said to appear ‘normal’. It was emotionally and physically draining and she was constantly comparing herself to hearing people. ’ I felt I didn’t measure up in certain areas and group conversations were a nightmare. I was crying a lot,’ she recalls.
Life had a new and bigger challenge in store for her:
‘When I climbed into the boat, I couldn’t hear.’
At nineteen, Karen took up barefoot waterskiing and spent the summer zipping around Christie Lake, finally something she was really good at and could enjoy without paying too much attention to her hearing. But one day she turned to cross a wake, caught a toe and slammed into the water sideways. After the crash, she thought she had water in her ears, the truth was hard to bear; she had become profoundly deaf.
As the summer holidays finished she hardly had time to digest her new situation before she found herself at a university that had a deaf program, amongst students whose first language was American Sign Language. American sign language (ASL) like British sign language (BSL) is a sign language with grammar and structure, the signing was rapid and in Karen’s eyes complex. She was truly a foreigner in a strange land. Karen found it impossible to lip read her instructors in the classroom.
At night the silence of her world became overwhelming and the frustration she had experienced during the day gave way to raw grief for her lost hearing. ‘I spent my nights crying.’ she confesses. One morning after yet another night of tears and frustration, she decided to take on the challenge instead of fighting against it – ‘I finally acknowledged I was deaf and decided to become the best deaf person I could possibly be.’ She says.
Karen set about the painstaking task of taking control of her life again; she learned ASL and keeping the promise she made herself, became so proficient that she ended up subbing her teachers in college.
ASL opened up the world for her and gave her access to education – something she had just been getting in bits and pieces over the years and now she could follow conversations with an interpreter.
Letting go of her old belief and survival systems took time and determination, but as her confidence grew, the occasions where she would fake understanding what was said became less frequent and she found a depth of friendship and human empathy that she didn’t realize she had missed since the age of seven.
‘My bluffing had made me lose out on a lot.’ She admits and adds: ‘If I had known the quote’ “why are you trying to fit in, when you are born to stand out?” then, instead of years later; it might have been another story.’
Karen wanted to become a labor and delivery nurse, but the lack of role models and a counselor’s comment:’ It will be too hard to overcome the communication challenges.’ Convinced her it was a bridge too far. Instead she took a degree in counseling, discovering much later that there are many deaf and hard of hearing professionals in all fields; deaf doctors, dentists, nurses and even politicians: lawyer Adam Kosa Mep who is also an MEP for Europe and New Zealands MP Mojo Mathers. ‘I’ve learnt an important lesson.‘ Karen says ‘limited possibilities comes from limited minds.’
Four years she worked as a councilor, but it was in the fifteen years after that she really learned the power of a positive attitude and the value of having a mentor as she started to explore new paths and new skills.
During this time she had three children, each were born with normal hearing but one by one they all became deaf. ‘I took complete joy in being able to spend time with my kids and teach them about life and how to communicate and advocate for themselves.’ She says. Karen also became very active in her community and started writing for Disaboom.com (a resource for those living with a disability, containing articles about living and thriving with a disability), Parentingsquad.com (tips, hacks and news for parents and their families) and the Chicago Moms blog and in 2003 she became a Deaf Mentor in the Illinois Early Intervention program, mentoring families raising deaf and hard of hearing children. ‘I wanted those families to know that there were unlimited possibilities for their children.’ She insists and quotes Kevin Hall: ”Talents and gifts do not reduce or diminish when shared, they expand and increase like the widening ripples form a pebble dropped in still water.”
As Karen’s children have grown and become more independent, she has herself learnt how valuable it is to have a mentor in your life: when sixty-six year old Judy Myers was featured on Today show waterskiing on her bare feet, Karen’s old passion was unleashed again and she connected up with the World Champion Keith St. Onge who not only mentored her to barefoot competitively but also helped her lose the extra pounds she had put on over the years.
Karen Griffard Putz can be found at the lake in bare feet, when she is not acting as a board member of Hands & Voices a non-profit organization or writing for Chicago Tribune, TribLocal and Chicago Now.
Karen with two of her mentors; Judy and Keith
Karen’s favorite reads: Aspire by Kevin Hall and Passion Test by Janet Attwood. ‘These are two books that I consistently recommend to everyone. The Passion Test will help identify what fires you up and Aspire will give you eleven words to live your life in a whole new way.’ (Available through the link below)
Thanks for reading this; I hope you enjoyed. Please be my guest and make a comment or ask a question or you have a story to tell, let me know. I would love hearing from you.