Monday, January 14, 2008
Neil McDevitt, Firefighter

At a recent Illinois Hands & Voices Parent Connection meeting, a parent shared her heartbreak when her young deaf son expressed a desire to grow up and become a fireman. “I know he won’t be able to be a fireman, but there’s other things he can do,” she said.

Oh yes, I told her, he can become a fireman. And girls can grow up to be firefighters as well. I told her about the firefighter I knew who worked in a town near me. About Mike McConnell, a forest hydrologist who is trained to fight fires as well. And about a volunteer firefighter that I found through a blog, the Deaf Firefighter's Blog.

The mom's eyes grew wide. I could see her attitude shifting, to one of great hope for her son's future as another barrier came tumbling down.

I had the pleasure of chatting with Neil McDevitt, a volunteer firefighter with the Montgomery Township Fire Department in Pennsylvania. Neil has been a volunteer with the department since 2003. When he's not on duty, he works full time as a Program Director for the Community Emergency Preparedness Information Network (CEPIN) at Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Inc. (TDI).

"Our program is a FEMA-recognized training partner," said Neil. "We developed a class called "Emergency Responders and the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community: Taking the First Steps to Disaster Preparedness" and we're also working on some other new programs as well."

Neil wears a pager at all times and “Yes, I sleep with it on,” he shares. As a firefighter, Neil has encountered house fires and car accidents where people have died but he prefers to focus on the positive attributes of his job.

“My most memorable experience happened a few months ago. A group of students from the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Philadelphia came to my fire house for a tour.” Neil had planned to teach his regular session on fire safety, but when the students arrived, he quickly realized that he needed to switch his approach to include the deaf students with developmental disabilities.

“I wanted to give the kids some hands-on activities, so I asked a firefighter to start one of the trucks and lay out a small hose line. We set up some cones and put tennis balls on top of them. Then we gave the kids the hose line and told them to knock the balls off.” Neil took great delight in seeing the smiles on the student’s faces. “What really made it special for me was one young boy who was severely developmentally disabled—he showed no expression during any of the previous activities and he suddenly lit up in a big smile when he touched that hose line.”

When Neil first began as a volunteer, he taught a class on non-verbal communication. “My reasoning for this was that firefighters already use a lot of non-verbal communication but they never really consciously thought about it,” said Neil. “Rather than teaching ‘ASL101’ and forcing them to learn something new, I personally feel it's more effective to make them more conscious of what they're already doing.”

One of the tough aspects of the job is the challenge of funding interpreters for meetings and trainings. “I know it’s easy to say that it is required by the Americans With Disabilities Act—that they should be paying for it, period. If it was a paying job, I would have no problems requesting interpreters left and right,” said Neil. “However, this is a volunteer organization and my feeling was, if I came in ‘demanding’ interpreters, then I would win the battle but lose the war.” Neil, instead, tried to use creative approaches to cover the cost of interpreters. For trainings held by the county or a training academy, the interpreters were willingly covered upon request. Neil was able to obtain a small grant from Prudential Insurance company to cover the cost of interpreters for other meetings.

Neil has plans in the works to include a new position into his role as a volunteer firefighter. “Right now, I have a proposal with the Chief to create a Public Information Officer position in the department and assign me to that role,” said Neil. “We'll be meeting to discuss that a little later in the year. Basically, the Public Information Officer is the person who works with the media and public to inform them of what's going on with the incident.”
For every mom of a deaf and hard of hearing child who dreams of being a firefighter, Neil has this to share: “It really is a rewarding job. You're giving back to your community, helping people in a very real and tangible way. Even if a deaf person isn't the one in front of the hose and putting the water on the fire, they're all working toward a common goal. I hope I never have to use American Sign Language for a deaf victim (especially since I know practically every deaf person in the township!) but I also know that I bring a talent to the table that very few departments are able to.”
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
June Prusak, Manager of a Youth Program

June Prusak has a fun job. She gets to go swimming, scuba diving, bowling, shopping, and rock climbing. She's been hit by dodgeballs, volleyballs and basketballs. And every year in July, she gets to scream along with the other deaf and hard of hearing kids on the roller coasters.

June is the Youth Program Coordinator at Chicago Hearing Society. She graduated from Gallaudet University with a B.S. degree in Leisure Studies, Therapeutic Recreation. For the last ten and half years, she's been planning fun activities for deaf and hard of hearing youth age seven to high school in the Chicago area.

"The best part of my job is being with deaf and hard of hearing kids!" said June. "I get to play with them, talk with them and use recreation opportunites to teach them about life, responsibilities, leadership and communication."

June runs the Adult Role Model in Education of the Deaf (ARMED) program and does approximately 65 presentations per year. The program sends a deaf or hard of hearing role model to different schools and the students get a chance to learn about professions and ask questions. For students with Ushers Syndrome, June arranges it so that each student can have one-on-one time with the role model to ask questions about being deaf blind.

There were many memorable role models throughout the years, but Chef Matt Krueger from Indianapolis stood out. "He did a cooking demonstration with the junior high kids," said June. "It was a hands-on kind of role model instead of the usual presentation."

June sets up a variety of activities throughout the year. A lot of her time is spent making arrangements for the event and making sure that releases are signed and transportation is arranged. "The worse part of the job is waiting for parents to pick up their kids," said June. She once waited at a police station for three hours when a parent finally showed up at midnight. June also runs a Leadership Workshop where the kids learn leadership skills and gain confidence. June helps them identify areas of strength and work on things they can improve.

The kids often look up to June as a role model but June recalls taking a SCUBA class for the first time with a group of deaf and hard of hearing teens that turned into a teachable moment. "The teens struggled with the SCUBA textbook, but it was easy for me. However, in the lake, the teens did every skills test and passed easily while I struggled in the water, due to my ears. It was nice for the teens to see me struggle."

"I hope and I feel like I'm giving back to the Deaf Community through the Youth Program," said June. "I enjoy giving the deaf and hard of hearing kids the positive aspects of life, recreation, communication, Deaf Culture and so on."

June takes great delight in seeing the positive outcomes of her program among the deaf and hard of hearing kids as they grow up. A high school student recently came up to her and recalled a lesson that she learned in sixth grade. Another student had a very resistent attitude about deaf role models as a younster, but grew up to seek out positive deaf role models after June introduced him to a deaf pilot. June has seen attitudes change and positive self esteem blossom as a result of kids meeting deaf and hard of hearing adults.

"You never know who you impact, how you impact, when you impact, etc... until that day comes!"

Saturday, January 5, 2008
Jamie Berke's Employment Links
Thursday, January 3, 2008
Do You Want to be on MTV? Read on!

True Life: I’m Deaf

Do you have severe or total deafness? Are you a deaf student, about to graduate and go out into the world on your own for the very first time? Or are you currently attending a school for the deaf but about to transition to a mainstream school? Perhaps you’re trying to find a job but experiencing difficulty because you are deaf? Are you hoping to get a cochlear implant or to be fitted for a hearing aid to significantly improve your ability to hear? Are you a member of an advocacy group, fighting to gain more rights or assistance for deaf people?

If you fit any of these descriptions, MTV and Gigantic! Productions want to hear your story.

MTV's True Life is a long-running, award-winning documentary series where young people share their stories in their own words. We hope that, by allowing people to tell their stories and communicate directly with their peers, we can impact the way people interact and engage with the world they live in.

If you appear to be between the ages of 16-28, and would like to share your story, please email us at and be sure to include your name, location, phone number and a photo.
Since 2001, Gigantic! Productions, a New York City-based production company, has been producing hard-hitting, award-winning documentary programming for networks such as MTV and CMT. Please visit our website: to find out more.
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