*Note: This was filmed in December 2022. Since then, Jacqui has been admitted to the PhD program in the Critical Studies in the Education of Deaf Learners program at Gallaudet University. She’ll begin this Fall.
Leah: Ok, hello and welcome to this blog. I’m excited to introduce Jacqueline Wunderich. Welcome!
Leah: I’m going to ask you a few questions on which you can expand about yourself and your work, your upbringing, etc. So, we’ll just have a chat about that. Again, welcome. My first question for you: tell me a bit about yourself including your personal and educational background and how you got to where you are today.
J: Hi. Well, first, my sign name is CANDYx [shows sign name]. It’s nice to be here. Thank you for having me. I’m originally from Michigan. I grew up there and I was raised orally even though I was born deaf. Then in high school, I failed a Spanish class but I wanted to learn a language that didn't require hearing. So I did some digging into where I could learn ASL. I was so curious about it and I begged my parents to let me take ASL. As it turned out, I went to an ASL camp. It was a little intimidating because all the other kids were hearing but I did my best (but I was kind of the worst one!). Later on in college, I started to struggle. Like in high school, I struggled with fitting in and I was trying to figure out what to do. After some soul searching, I decided to transfer to Gallaudet. I was 19 at the time and I arrived and really started to pick up ASL. It was an interesting time because I transferred at 19 and when I went home [that Fall] for Thanksgiving, after only three months at Gallaudet, even with 19 years of [straining] hearing and speaking, and when I went home and it was really hard. And really things have been hard ever since I moved into the deaf world. But I kept going and eventually graduated from Gallaudet with a degree in psychology, at which point I thought to myself, “what should I do? What do you do with a psych degree?” I ended up working in a school for deaf kids with additional needs. Many had behavioral issues and they couldn’t live safely at home. I loved it but often saw that a lot of key decisions were made by hearing people. So I went back to school and got a degree in Special Education with a specialization in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). After graduation, I became a board certified Behavior Analyst. Now I’ve been working on setting up a business related to ABA and supporting deaf children with behavior needs. These children are often autistic but really there’s a wide range of children I work with. I support these children in how to effectively communicate with everyone. So, that’s it in a nutshell!
L: That’s perfect. And really, you touched on several of the questions I had planned to ask so I might have to tweak things on the fly a bit, but that’s ok. What a wonderful overview touching on your own language and deaf journeys, plus your educational journey [J interjects, “It all overlaps!”] and how everything has turned out. So that’s great. What originally sparked our conversation was you complaining about finding qualified interpreters to support your work. What other barriers/discrimination have you experienced in educational/professional or other settings? It doesn’t have to be about interpreters but it can.
J: Yeah well I’ve had a number of stumbling blocks. Originally I had been in a different program for my graduate degree. I left because often the interpreters didn’t show up or they’d show up but their interpreting was mediocre. It wasn’t worth my tuition money! I tried to advocate for myself to no avail. So, I moved to a different program. But the challenge I encountered there was that in the field of ABA, there aren’t specialized vocabulary words for many of the concepts we discussed. I’ll give you an example. The word “verbal”...I see you nodding. Yeah, so what does “verbal” mean to you? Let’s start that way because I’m sure it’s different in each field.
L: Language. Any language. But I know that most people out there have something else in mind for “verbal.”
J: Yeah, in ABA, “verbal” refers to a behavior that is expressed and impacts the environment. While that’s the concept we’re discussing, most [interpreters] would sign VOICE to mean “verba” even though they’re not the same thing. Things like this often came up and I felt stuck. I ended up making my own sign for “verbal” [shows compound of EXPRESS+SPACE] because we’re talking about an expression in a particular environment. That fits for me in my field; it’s a perfect way to describe this concept. So, things like that show up a lot in interpreting. Another thing, recently I tried to go to this conference. Actually, they invited me but the night before I still didn’t know if I would have interpreters there, access to anything. I had no idea because they were like, “oh well we have captions.” And I just couldn't get more information about access and this is a pervasive issue. I guess I could do some continuing education online that’s deaf specific; that would be accessible, but outside of that, it’s never clear whether something will be accessible. And small places may not be required to provide captions or interpreting so I have to figure out how to advocate for myself and make it work anyway. That’s a big challenge.
L: Yeah, for sure! I follow, and you might too, on Instagram, a deaf dental hygienist and she talks a lot about the barriers she’s faced in securing access for conferences and how the world is not designed for deaf people in that role, so does that mean we can’t have deaf people in that role? No, because she made it and she founded a non-profit etc…so yes, that's a big challenge if you’re not in a more niche deaf field, how do you a) convince people you belong there and b) the way to prove I belong is by making it accessible and I’ll show you how much I know and can contribute
J: [interjecting] networking opportunities!
L: …yeah networking is so important. I know a lot of conferences provide interpreters (in the situations they do this) for talks but not for a 30-minute social food break or something like that. But that’s when a lot of the “magic” happens! You meet that person who leads you to the next big thing in your career! But if there’s a barrier, you’re sunk! That opportunity is lost.
So, despite the barriers you’ve encountered, what led you to ABA and maybe you can expand a bit more on what exactly that means for those who may not know.
J: ABA refers to anything living, animals, people, their behavior and what we can express to change that behavior. We have to examine what causes particular behaviors and why they continue to happen. So, we can look at a behavior and say, “oh well that happened because they were mad or lazy.” But in actuality, that’s not the case. The behavior happened because the environment was set up in such a way that caused this person to act in a particular way. I’ll give you an example. Suppose we have a family with hearing parents and deaf kids. The hearing parents can sign but maybe they’ll use oral English if they’re speaking to one another. The deaf kid sees this – their parents using oral language with each other – and starts hitting their sibling. In seeing that, the parents stop speaking orally and switch to using ASL and engaging with the deaf child. From this exchange, the kid learns, “Ok, I get what I want, my parents signing, when I hit my sibling!” The child is using a way of communicating that they know works. It satisfies their needs. So what’s going to happen the next time the parents start speaking oral English to each other? The kid is going to repeat the abusive behavior. I see this all the time. Where children do things that work for them, at least in the short term. As a behavior analyst, my job is to enter this situation and observe and determine why the hitting behavior is happening and teach a new skill to replace the abusive behavior. For example, the kid could wave at their parents when they’re speaking orally, advocating for themselves in asking the parents to sign. I could also turn this on the parents and teach them that any time their kid is in eye-shot, they need to use ASL even if you’re not speaking directly to the child.
We look at the purpose of a behavior. For example, if a child is doing something for attention and they get it, that reinforces them to keep using that behavior to get attention. They do whatever they know how to do to satisfy a particular need. So, that’s what I do and my process in analyzing behavior.
L: Ok, so what led you from your BA in psychology to finding ABA later on?
J: Oops, left that part out. I was working at a residential school for the deaf, TLC, The Learning Center for the Deaf in Massachusetts, specifically their Walden School Program. It was an amazing program for deaf and hard of hearing kids with additional needs. There were kids with eating disorders, autism, and everything else. I worked with one particular autistic student there. No one else really wanted to work with this student because they were very aggressive. It could be dangerous. And you can’t tell on Zoom, but I’m a small person, five feet tall. I’m not big. Some people in my field can physically restrain students if needed. I can’t do that. It could be a life or death situation! Instead, I really focused on building a relationship with this child and learning everything I could about them in observing their behavior and interactions, trying to figure out what it all meant. Ultimately, I tried a particular behavioral strategy and it worked. This student went from being in the hospital to graduating and I’m so proud of all they achieved.
But that really got me thinking about what kinds of behavioral supports could improve someone’s life. How can they learn how to express themselves, their needs and wants. So maybe it was that psychological aspect of expressing/talking about feelings. Other people didn’t see how to make it work with that kid but I did and that was really powerful. At that point I was resolved to go back to school and keep learning more about working with this population.
L: Awesome, awesome, awesome! My next question is kind of related too. I know that ABA can be a bit of a sensitive topic, a bit controversial. But I notice that on your website you say that your mission is to provide “neurodiversity-affirming behavior analytic services.” Given this, what do you want people to know about that? What’s the difference between your ABA practice and those that people have negative feelings about, and those that many autistic adults have reported traumatic experiences about? So, what’s different?
J: It’s a valid concern. I can liken this to the field of speech-language pathology (SLP). Many of us [deaf individuals] went through speech, myself included, and hated it. It was not individualized to me. All told, it was many hours and years of my life that I learned to say “baaa” and “ahhh,” but if I can’t say “toothbrush” it’s not making a big impact on my life. Yet I spent many hours doing this and it was traumatic. But then I look online or see at residential schools for the deaf that SLPs focus not on speech/articulation, but on language. That results in students growing and we see this because [the SLPs] looked at the culture and what are deaf people’s tendencies and they incorporated that into their practice, rather than trying to make deaf kids hearing. They’re really affirming of the deaf experience. This is what I see a parallel with in ABA. First, let me say, it’s a young field. But I see a lot of similarities between SLP and ABA. ABA can be like the “old school” trauma-inducing experience like many experienced with SLP (and this is an ongoing issue as well) or it can be this affirming experience I’ve also witnessed. [The practitioner] sees the person and considers everything they need to be successful, what they need to be functional. In the past, a lot of ABA focused on eye-contact. “You have to make eye contact to be ‘normal’!” But is eye-contact really what’s important, say in deaf kids? No, for the purposes of language comprehension, they don’t need to make direct eye-contact but rather they can look sort of over a person’s shoulder to still catch the message. This allows for typical conversation backchanneling, checking for comprehension, and to ensure that communication doesn’t break down. That’s the important part [not the eye-contact itself]! So, when I say my practice is deaf affirming, this is an example of what I mean. I look at the whole person. I’m not trying to make deaf people into hearing people or autistic people into neurotypicals. I’m not trying to make anyone into something they’re not. Are you happy? Are you successful? Can you communicate without getting stuck on something with a problem behavior? That’s what I’m talking about.
L: I love that parallel. I love it. I’m very involved in the SLP world through different things: my husband is an SLP, I recently served on the doctoral committee of a person earning their Doctor of Speech-Language Pathology (SLPD), I’m on another PhD committee for an SLP. All of these individuals work in deaf education in some way, in a mainstream program or in a residential deaf school. I go to conferences for SLPs who sign because they’re trying to figure out ok, “My training as an SLP focuses on the mouth and ears; what do I need to do to serve the children who do not use their ears or mouths for communication, or for whom oral communication is a lower priority, and also not cause trauma?”
So, that’s why I love that parallel. Because honestly until I “met” you online, I only heard horror stories about ABA. When I saw your account with “deaf” and “ABA” in it, I was perplexed but thought it was really interesting, and your website provided a lot of insight. So, I’m really glad you had the opportunity to share that parallel because I think it’s more likely to resonate with [some viewers]. They might start to really get it that ABA doesn’t have to be traumatic. It can be affirming. It’s not about changing who the person is but figuring out what one needs to thrive.
J: Right. Honestly, part of why I became an ABA…well really I originally wanted to be an SLP. But then I thought well as a deaf person, it would be too hard to get through doing the work. After all my own speech classes, everything in my own background, I just couldn’t do it. I recognized that it could be more than what I experienced, you know like that parallel I explained. And some things are hard with ABA, too. I think it’s a symptom of being a “helping field.” They are, by nature, ableist. And that’s something we need to change, not just ABA but all of [the helping fields].
L: Well that’s great and it really changed how I think of ABA as well. That’s wonderful.
J: Oh one more thing I want to say about that. One thing that hasn’t really been applied but I would love to see is using ABA to address language deprivation. But the problem is that it’s still very “hearing” and isn’t always accessible to deaf people. If you think about it, if a child does something incredibly disruptive and we see that it’s related to language, ABA can assess and figure out how to support that individual. It’s not just like “Well, language deprivation happened. That’s it!” Sometimes behaviors are severe, but what do we do? Maybe ABA could offer a novel approach.
L: I know my husband has talked a lot about…well what drives his research interests is trying to figure out what happens after language deprivation. The parallel and also a potential collaboration of your skills and someone else's attempting to address language deprivation. I have to say, I know a PhD isn’t for everyone, but if you ever wanted to go back to school, that would be a fantastic topic!
J: I want to but I have to figure out where!
L: You have time! I’ve learned in my own journey that there’s no…back up, my nature is very competitive. Everything’s a competition. I know it should not be but that’s just how my brain works. Luckily I’m aware of that now and try to keep it in check, but by nature, I’m very competitive. So, 10 years ago I would not have said this, but now I see the value in working in a field for a while, getting some experience in this and that and starting to make notes of things that one sees, thinking about them, and then feeling like you can say, “Ok, now I know what I want to study!” With that in mind, you can pick the best school to match those interests, pick a faculty advisor to support my work. I had a wonderful experience in my graduate program, mind you; I was very lucky. But I went straight through with no breaks. But now I’m seeing more and more people work as some type of clinician – ABA, SLP, OT, PT, etc. – and go through their work then after some number of years decide that you want more and go back to get a PhD. So I think it would be a wonderful topic!
J: There’s a whole world out there!
L: Yes, and like you said, ABA is a new field. All new fields are set up in some way but they don’t need to stay as they were originally envisioned forever; they can evolve over time to fit the needs of the field.
J: Right, I was recently presenting and there are about 50,000 BCBAs in the US. About 50% of them became certified in the last five years. [Leah interjects by mouthing “wow.”] So, it’s very new, a very young field.
L: Maybe that’s a good thing because…
J: Right, you know deaf people are born, they should have a deaf ABA right away who can focus on affirming their being.
L: I love it! Is there anything else you want to leave people with? A parting message?
J: I know that ABA is a sensitive topic. But I think if you look at the principle of it, it’s a great tool we can harness to empower people and solve a lot of big problems in our community. I hope more deaf people will get involved in ABA or contact me! I’ll help support you! We can figure out together how to support our community.
L: Wow! I love it. What powerful parting words. Thank you so much for joining me today. I look forward to seeing how ABA as a field may shift and how, hopefully with your encouragement, with your business, will recruit more people to the field, to help buoy that change to a more affirming focus. Thank you so much!
J: Thank you!