By: MacKenzie Ahearn
(GREENSBURG, Pa.) – According to Noel King, there are only six Deaf art therapists in the United States so far, which makes sense as to why the Deaf community might want to change that fact. My sister, Seton Hill University senior art therapy major Hannah Ahearn, is one of them.
“When I see other Deaf people being successful, it makes me motivated to do the same,” Ahearn said. “I look up to those minority groups who persevere despite the obstacles.”
“I was searching on social media in hopes of finding other Deaf art therapists,” Ahearn said. “I was so excited when I came across Noel,” she continued. “I saw that she had a lot of experience and had accomplished a lot. It inspired me.”
“I am one of the minorities, but when I am making art, the sense of minority disappears, and I am Noel the artist,” said Noel King, currently pursuing a doctorate in Expressive Therapies at Lesley University in Massachusetts.
King has become notable for her work which made several Deaf art therapy graduate students contact her for advice.
“I didn’t expect to be a mentor, but I am happy to be one of the mentors that encourage art therapists to break the glass ceilings or systematic barriers,” King said. “Hearing people can do dance therapy, cognitive behavior therapy, etc, but Deaf people don’t have that kind of variety.”
“It’s a way to remove barriers and to celebrate their identities and cultures,” King said. Art is very visual and Deaf people are visual learners.”
“[I] used to major in art education, but I switched because I felt that I could help the Deaf community better this way,” Ahearn said. “There aren’t that many Deaf art therapists or workers in this field like there are hearing, so I want to be able to provide access for those that need it.”
“Getting to know her over the years, I’m impressed by her,” said Ahearn’s advisor Patti Ghubril. “Her grit and determination. She’s always on top of things.”
“I’ve seen a couple of [her] pieces in the gallery this fall,” Ghubril said. “There was a self-portrait portraying her experiences of being a Deaf person. It was very powerful.”
“As a college student now, my artwork is focused on my experiences as a Deaf person in a hearing environment and social injustice,” Ahearn said.
“I’ve been interested in art ever since I was a kid. My school in China had art programs,” Ahearn said. She knew she wanted to pursue art from then. SHU kept reappearing in her search for secondary education. “People from the community told me it was good, so I went with it,” Ahearn said.
“SHU and this office works in a way that the Americans with Disabilities Act is the floor and not the ceiling,” said Kimberly Bassi-Cook Director of Disabilities Services at SHU.
“Thomas Aquinas once said ‘nothing is inherently good or evil,” Bassi-Cook recited. “The same can be said for independence. It can be both. Independence pushes you through when things are hard,” Bassi-Cook said.
Ahearn recently finished her internship at a hospital under the Alabama Department of Mental Health with a specialized Deaf unit.
“That speaks of grit,” Bassi-Cook said, “Moving that far for her own experience. [She] puts herself out there and is getting what she needs.”
“Initially, I was concerned that it might be too much, too many steps involved,” Ghubril said. However, “She had support from her family and was confident.”
“Hannah can go anywhere she wants,” Ghubril said. “Her path doesn’t need to look like anyone else’s. She’s inspiring that way.”
“I want to travel to help Deaf people all over the world,” Ahearn said. “I wish to incorporate art therapy into those practices.”
Art therapy, like most other forms of therapy, requires some sort of open communication between the client and therapist. It usually means that the Deaf client requests an interpreter, which isn’t always the most comfortable option.
“The system is designed for hearing people,” King said.
“Based on my personality, my lived experiences as a Deaf person, I will try to use the pre-existing psychological tools and art therapy tools and use a Deaf and hard of hearing lens on it,” King explained.
“I do hope it plants a seed in people’s minds,” King said.
“Deaf art is so powerful in bridging the hearing and Deaf world,” Bassi-Cook said. “Hearing individuals, if they’re open to it, can see new things.”
The language barrier that unnecessarily separates these two worlds continues to be a problem for the Deaf community in receiving basic services.
Ahearn said, “I would call job companies on my video phone through the video relay service, and as customary, the interpreter would announce their position as an interpreter for the call, and I would get told that they hung up on me.”
People often use the lowercase ‘d’ when referring to Deaf people as it emphasizes the medical condition of not being able to hear, instead of capitalizing it to recognize the culture.
“We did not have to talk about deafness under a medical lens, like a hearing family with a Deaf child might have to,” King said. She had grown up in a Deaf family.
“We live in the Deaf community and breathe in our Deaf culture on a daily basis,” King stated.
In high school, Ahearn attended a Deaf and hard-of-hearing program Explore Your Future at Rochester Institute for Technology. There, she was able to socialize with and learn about the experiences of other Deaf people.
Quanchen Warmack, whom she met through EYF said, “I work with Deaf and hard-of-hearing students because of the connection.” Now, Warmack is a Deaf high school math teacher. She graduated from Gallaudet University in 2020. It was the first established college in the world dedicated to the Deaf and hard of hearing.
“They know my experiences and I know theirs. We share the same culture,” Warmack stated.
“I want to see Deaf students be able to be independent and motivated to reach their personal goals,” Warmack said.
“In the meetings with her advisor, it was very clear that she’s [Ahearn] a dedicated student,” Bassi-Cook said.
“My job is behind the scenes,” Bassi-Cook said. “Contacting professors about captioned videos and informing them about interpreter etiquette.”
“It should be a seamless experience so that she can be a student like everyone else,” Bassi-Cook continued.
“I smile because you can’t control the things people say when you’re not in the room,” Bassi-Cook said as she actually smiled. “[We] have a nice reputation [because] we work really hard as an office to meet the spirit of the law,” Bassi-Cook said.
“Her growth has been in the professional capacity, in her future craft and profession,” Bassi-Cook said. She is confident in Ahearn’s skills.
“The biggest obstacle for an individual is someone else’s ignorance and not giving them the opportunity to demonstrate the gifts they have,” Bassi-Cook stated.
“Ignorance, because she’s a female, young, Deaf,” Bassi-Cook said.
Photo of Hannah Ahearn provided by MacKenzie Ahearn