Sharon Serbin describes herself as a Jane-of-all-trades: an artist, a personal trainer, and most recently, a life skills counselor at the Center for Hearing and Deaf Services. Serbin lost her hearing in her teens, and has spent many years working in the hearing and deaf communities. 90.5 WESA’s Margaret J. Krauss interviewed Serbin as part of an ongoing series in which we speak with leading experts and people of interest in the Pittsburgh community. Their conversation has been edited for length.
I'm Sharon Serbin. I'm a mom, I'm a grandmom. Those are good titles. Up until today, I worked full-time here at Center for Hearing & Deaf services as an adult training life skills program counselor. I grew up hard of hearing. Went full deaf when I was 18. It was gradual. So. I sign, but right now I'm not going to sign while I talk, too much.
And why is that?
It's too hard. ASL, American sign language, its grammar is different. So if I'm speaking in English and trying to sign ASL, they don't match. But for me not to sign at all is like not breathing. So the interpreter will sign for me. But you're going to see a lot of signs coming for me, too.
Why is it important for people to understand what it's like to navigate the city or the region without hearing?
First, the people I work with are deaf and ID, intellectually disabled. But all deaf, what you need to know is, it's not contagious. Used to be I would say, ‘Oh I'm deaf,’ and they would back away. A lot of people would say, ‘Oh, I'm sorry.’ Nothing to be sorry about. I'm happy being deaf. I didn't choose it, but it’s just part of me. Would I change it? Probably not.
I went for an evaluation for Cochlear implant a few years ago. Once my kids grew up and moved out, they were insisting, ‘Mom, you need to get a cochlear. You're living alone, it's not safe.’ It's fine! ‘No, no, mom, what if you leave the stove on, and you don't hear it click?’ And I said, ‘Stoves click?’ ‘Mom!’
I thought OK, fine, fine. So I went and got evaluated. They say I'm a good candidate. But everything would be monotone. And I have memory of sound. I have memory of music, everything before 1979. I can sing all the songs. I don't want to replace that with monotone.
People can understand me clearly. That makes it easy for me to work in the hearing world. Deaf who don't speak clearly it makes it a little harder. They can do it. They’re capable, it’s fine. But it makes it harder. People need to understand just because they can't speak does not mean they're stupid. The hearing world needs to realize that.
You described yourself a couple of minutes ago as a “bridge kid.” Does that feel like a responsibility to be a communicator for both?
I think it's an advantage. Not as much a responsibility, but it's a gift. And anytime you're given a gift you have to use it to help others.
Now the other thing I do, communication assessment. A few years ago, there was a lawsuit. There was a deaf with intellectual disability (ID) living in a consolidated waiver home. [This is a Pennsylvania program intended to assist people with intellectual disabilities to live with more independence in their homes and communities]. And staff couldn’t communicate with them at all. He got very sick. He ended up dying. There was a suit against Pennsylvania, and won, saying, anybody living under state waiver money, their staff must communicate with them. Must.
They said, ‘Fine, great. But nobody knows each person’s different communication needs.’ So Temple University trained assessors to go around different places and assess that individual’s needs. Can they read lips? Can they write? Do they sign? Do they gesture? What? What are they able to do? What's their promising for the future? What will help them? Then we write reports and recommend them. That should help all those people.
So much of life is communication. If there is a barrier and you can't help yourself or if someone can't help you, it must be such a lonely or hard place.
Extremely lonely and a lot of these ID clients, consumers, also have mental health problems they're struggling with.
And if they're so lonely and they can't communicate—stressful. Or their behavior will blow up. Because there's no communication. That's terrible. How do they say, ‘I don't feel good’? How do they communicate, ‘I don't want that for dinner’? They should be able to communicate their wants, their choices, how they feel.
I have attended your water aerobics class in East Liberty. I've never seen so many people smiling laughing so much while exercising. Why do you think that is?
I think that's from my dad. My father was a motivational speaker and I grew up with that. I think what I do is just continue on what he taught me. I teach different things about positive thinking. Such as if you sit there and say, ‘I can't do it, I'm deaf, I can't do it because I'm poor, I can't do it because I'm divorced. I can't do it.’ All those can’ts? Negative, negative, negative. You build up a wall and it blocks you. If you sit there and say, ‘I can do it. Differently. I can.’ Positive, positive, positive? It's a ladder and you just keep going. There's no stopping you.