Kimberly Thornsberry is the definition of resilient. Based in Decatur, Alabama, she was nominated by her daughter, Stormi Kilcher, who wrote: “My mom is a case manger for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing mental health department for the state of Alabama. She does so much for people and for our family. She had me when she was 17 and people told her she would never succeed as a Deaf, single mother. But she has defined the odds—been married for 19 years, gave birth to two beautiful children, has a master’s degree, and continues to promote mental health awareness among the United States for Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals. She is and will always be a winner in my eyes.”
Learning about Thornsberry’s story, we knew we had to find out even more about her. Below she answers some of our questions via email, and her words highlight the incredible power of determination.
You have overcome adversity to live an incredibly fulfilling life; your daughter mentioned that when you were younger, you were told you’d never make it as a Deaf, single mother. How did that make you feel? How did you overcome that negativity?
All my life, I had been told that being Deaf was not going to be easy and I would have a hard time leading a normal life just because I could not hear or talk right. I was told that I might not have a real job to support myself and my future family. When I found out I was pregnant with my daughter, the outside voices seemed to be more negative, and I feared that if these people were right, I might not provide Stormi or myself with a good life. I had this constant fear that people would judge and not bother to give me a chance to be a mom to Stormi; most of all, I feared that Stormi would be taken away from me.
I was constantly told to give Stormi up for adoption during my pregnancy (and was encouraged to have an abortion). Within hours of her birth, I had to ask a faith leader to get out of my hospital room after he preached how it was not possible for me to keep Stormi and raise her because I was Deaf. I became angry and broke down crying. But somehow this feeling of anger changed to something else: “I am going to prove this guy wrong. I carried Stormi within me for nine months and I made it this far. I will keep going.” I was going to give Stormi a good life.
I was so determined. I set my goals of what would happen over the next few months and within the next few years: finish high school, attend college, continue to support and raise Stormi with my family support. A few months after Stormi was born, I was one of the 21 top seniors who graduated with honours. I attended a local community college before I transferred to Gallaudet University in Washington, DC. Then opportunities flourished from there.
Twenty-three years later, I am working full-time with a passion for helping others make a difference in their lives. I am a proud mother and wife. Stormi has travelled to more than half of the states in the United States and lived in Europe working on organic farms. She has obtained a bachelor’s degree and is working towards her master’s. Stormi, along with my son, Ty, are fluent in both American Sign Language and spoken English.
I have raised them and have provided them with good lives. Unfortunately, this does not stop others who are ignorant about Deaf individuals. One incident I’ll never forget: I went shopping at Walmart with my children, and Stormi told me that she overheard a conversation between two women who stood by us. One woman said, “Oh my god! I can’t even look at them: a deaf mother with her two children.” I told Stormi to let her be and not to worry about what she thought or said of us. I continually share with my children that we shall move on and continue to do great with our lives regardless of what others say about us.
You work for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing mental health department for the state of Alabama. Could you explain a bit more about what you do there?
I work for the Alabama Department of Mental Health. We provide specialized services for individuals who are Deaf/Hard of Hearing, including individual therapy sessions, family therapy, assessments, consultants, and interpreting services. We also provide training to those who want to learn to work with Deaf people in mental health settings. I work with consumers in one-to-one sessions through their recovery and work toward their desired goals, providing them with support to ensure that their communication needs are being met when they are being served by non-signing providers and staff. I also work with local mental health community centres to ensure they provide culturally and linguistically appropriate services (CLAS) to individuals who are Deaf by working with them and training them. In addition, I provide them with resources that would be beneficial to serving these individuals.
Services we provide are addressed and utilized in Deaf consumers’ languages. We have a great team consisting of signing-fluent therapists, qualified mental health interpreters, Deaf psychologists, visual gestural specialists, coordinators, and directors serving Deaf people across the state of Alabama. What is important about our work is that we are able to accommodate Deaf consumers’ communication needs in order to be responsive to receiving mental health care appropriately and effectively. That’s the important key to Deaf mental health.
We’re sure that a lot of what you do is about raising awareness about and for the Deaf community in your state. What are some barriers that Deaf and Hard of Hearing people face that the majority of people probably do not realize?
“Deaf people can do anything except hear.” -I. King Jordan. This is a quote I frequently use, and it is true. This applies to the Deaf population and myself; what separates us from others is that we cannot hear, but we can make it work through other means of communication such as signing, gestures, writing, visual pictures, typing, interpreters, etc. That may require us to educate others on how to work with us.
At work, we have evidence-based approaches, research work, appropriate assessments, and direct services to be able to serve consumers who are Deaf. We educate and partner with non-signing providers to provide appropriate services to this population as well. We advocate for Deaf consumers to ensure that they have access to communication and to address their needs and requests. Most importantly, we advocate for them to be who they are.
Most do not see the barriers that we are experiencing within the Deaf community now. It has been going on for hundreds of years. We have been dealing with being mis-diagnosed, plus oppression, audism, discrimination, and a lack of opportunities. A controversial topic is about depriving a Deaf person of his or her Sign Language knowledge during the early years of his or her life, and how that has impacted him or her in many areas later in life. We are working with a number of consumers who are Deaf and deprived or have been deprived of language to rehabilitate their abilities to communicate.
We are truly blessed to live today when there is awareness about the Deaf community, plus American Sign Language, and technologies that have improved the lives and qualities of Deaf people such as videophone, video relay services, and interpreting services. Unlike the past, Deaf couples are able to marry, have children, and are able to obtain driver’s licenses. The pool of professionals working with the Deaf community has expanded tremendously.
I encourage parents of Deaf child(ren) to include all communication methods such as Sign Language and spoken English to communicate. Do not wait for your Deaf child to speak one correct word after one to two years of extensive training. I have witnessed a hearing mother communicate with her two Deaf boys aged six and nine in American Sign Language; I was amazed to see how many words both boys could express and respond receptively to in just five minutes of their conversation. I also encourage hearing parents to consult with both Deaf adults and hearing professionals working with the Deaf population to explore all the possibilities that would work for your Deaf child. More than one language does not hurt or hinder a Deaf child’s learning development.
How can the rest of the population become better allies to the Deaf community?
There are several ways, such as learning Sign Language.
In a business setting, make your businesses Deaf-friendly—which means readily able to greet Deaf customers. Waving hi is a simple way to greet them and ask them how you can communicate with them. Offer to write simple questions, make eye contact with them, and don’t forget to smile. If you learn some signs such as “help?”, “interpreter?”, and even introduce your name, it would be helpful until you learn what the Deaf consumer needs. Visual pictures (drawing, or Googling a picture on your phone or computer) would be helpful as well. Be familiar with how to contact an agency to send qualified interpreters to interpret between you and the Deaf consumers.
If you hire a Deaf person to work for your company, that would be awesome. Work with this Deaf person on how to communicate and get ideas or requests, and provide adequate modes of communication that are accessible for both parties.
Generally, show a Deaf person that you welcome him or her—into the neighbourhood, the class, the workplace, the event.
Mental health is such an important topic. In your opinion, how can we continue to break down the stigma surrounding it?
Mental health is indeed an important topic we cannot take for granted. Every single day, every hour, every minute, every second, a person is affected by mental health. We treat and care for a cut on a finger, and we could do the same for our mental health.
To break down the stigma surrounding it, we need to get this message out: it is okay to talk about it. It is okay to ask for help. You are not alone in this.
We need more awareness about mental health and promoting it in encouraging ways with education and resources. There is training available, such as mental health first-aid training. Explore websites such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness for excellent resources and guidance on how to support a loved one or friend with mental illness.
Self-care is different for everyone—what does it mean to you?
To me, self-care means allowing myself to process whatever comes to mind, focusing on what is important to me at this moment. Finding my grounding and mindfulness. Accepting what I cannot change but accepting what I can do.
What is one of your favourite or most memorable pieces of advice?
I look up to Lady Gaga. One of her quotes touched me: “I believe that the most inexpensive and perhaps the best medicine in the world is words. Kind words … positive words … words that help people who feel ashamed of an invisible illness to overcome their shame and feel free.”
Is there anything else you would like to share? The floor is yours.
This is from Stormi: “My mother has taught and shown me an incredible amount of strength and courage. We have experienced our hardships but we have also experienced greatness. We continue to learn from each other, and that is an important relationship. I frequently think, ‘Whoa—that is my mother.’ Thank you for sharing her story. I think it is so important that others have awareness about how to support Deaf individuals and create the space for them to really show the world who they are meant to be.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
To learn about the other 2019 Dynamic Women Award winners, click here.