Within the fields of mental health and deafness,Dr. Allen Sussman is a well known Deaf American pioneer. I met him in 1997 when I was a Deaf student at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. He is important to me because he is a Deaf therapist like me and I learned a lot from him.
When we grow up we like to have someone to look up to and learn from. It may be a daughter admiring her own mother or a little boy wanting to be a famous AFL footballer, or a yoga devotee wanting to find the truth following the wise Guru master's instructions. Or perhaps, it could be a similar experience that draws us magnetically to people who are like or very different to or similar to us.
I did not have many role models when I was a little girl but I do remember deciding I wanted to follow in my mother's steps to become a dressmaker. But I did not follow her steps. I had bigger dreams to chase when I grew up.
I was a graduate student when I met Dr Sussman, who would later become my role model. I was studying at Gallaudet University, which has programs and services designed for deaf and hard of hearing students. There were many other interesting Deaf lecturers and leaders, but Dr Sussman was more profound. I was in his class where I studied different counselling theories and approaches. I remember thinking he looked very intense, sensitive and a bit frightening. I was young and naive at that time so I was rather blunt with my questions and opinions.
Sussman was about 65 years old when I was his student. He taught within the Graduate Mental Health Counselling Program and had a doctorate from New York University. Since my time in Washington he has worked at a number of mental health centres as a director, research scientist and professor. He has co-written a number of books and published many articles. He also ran a private practice for over 30 years.
Gallaudet University experience
I was training to become a Deaf therapist and was very excited to learn everything from Dr Sussman and the other professors. He was like a wise therapist to me. One day in his office I revealed a few personal issues about myself. He bluntly told me I was responsible for my own actions which meant I should not blame anyone from my past for my own behaviour. This was very good feedback.
Another time I was in his office with another student when he told me off because I cheekily interrupted him in his tracks. He lectured me about my
cockiness and asked me to listen more in class. From then on I was so quiet in his class that one of my classmates asked me if I was OK. She admitted she missed my many questions. She liked my
cockiness, but Sussman did not. This was a time of very significant personal development for me. I learned about myself and knew I had to smooth out the rough edges in myself.
What did I learn from Sussman?
Sussman lectured a lot about the different counselling theories and approaches that should be adapted for deaf people's language and cultural needs. He was angry at hearing therapists who would blame deaf clients' limitations if their own therapeutic work was not successful.
I especially loved his guidelines about characteristics of a healthy well-adjusted Deaf person. He explained that to be a healthy well-adjusted Deaf person, you need to accept who you are, including your deafness, your his ability to communicate clearly in sign language or speech or both, and to have a healthy outlook in life. Having healthy relationships with both hearing and Deaf people, being and is able to survive and laugh without sarcasm, even when you have a hard time dealing with difficult situations are also necessary.. A healthy well-adjusted Deaf person is able to hold down a good job, be independent and have a manageable and happy life.
Many thanks must go to Dr Sussman for his wonderful contributions in the mental health and deaf communities.