Sheena McFeely, Pearls Founder and Amy Edwards Interview

The pearls

The Pearls - Visionary Deaf Women

Shortly after learning that her newborn daughter Shaylee was deaf, Sheena McFeely gleaned some equally sobering news from a brochure at an audiologist’s office. Deafness, the brochure read, makes it difficult for a child to make friends.

The news hit McFeely like a punch in the gut. “I read that sentence,” she remembers, “and I thought, ‘Can you imagine this message is being spread to parents who have no knowledge of deafness?’ These parents are already grieving and this adds to their burden without giving them any sort of positive perspective.”

McFeely had good reason to be critical of that brochure’s latent cynicism. Much like her now sixteen-month-old daughter, Sheena McFeely is deaf.

Friendships, as it turns out, come naturally to her.

“I love people,” McFeely said via a translated phone conversation. “I am absolutely a people-person and I thrive on socialization. Even when I was in high school I was very much a ‘bring it on’ personality. I think I gained the respect of my peers early because I was open and I was cool and I always wanted to make more and more friends. That’s just who I am.”

McFeely’s natural exuberance and gift for communication served her well during an upbringing that bounced her from Hong Kong to Ireland to a high school in Burbank, California. While in high school she was a yearbook editor, an athlete on water polo and swim teams, and founded the American Sign Language (ASL) club. She was also elected to the school’s student government until an administrator informed her that, due to her deafness and inability to use a microphone, she couldn’t fill the position. McFeely and her family fought the decision, taking the matter to the school’s principal, but by the time the dust had settled, McFeely had decided she didn’t want the job.

“The position was offered to me,” McFeely said, “and I told them, ‘No, I don’t want to work for you. The only reason I fought this was because I don’t want this to happen to any other kind of student who might be interested in running someday. I wanted to make you aware you can’t do this.’”

Now a resident of Maryland—and married to a college friend who also happens to be deaf—McFeely works as an event planner and marketing consultant. Her most recent brainchild is likely her most personal gala thus far: The Pearls, a celebration of 21 successful deaf women from across the United States.

“When I was younger, it was so hard to find anyone deaf out there to look up to,” McFeely said. “My hope is that The Pearls will be a wonderful way to influence other young women who are growing up deaf. I want my daughter to experience a different sort of world than the one my husband and I grew up in.”

Inspired in part by an Oprah Winfrey presentation titled The Legends, which shone a spotlight on diverse and successful African-American women, McFeely’s project is a dinner that recognizes advocates, artists, business professionals, and other high-achieving deaf women whose efforts often go unnoticed by the public at large. The roster of “pearls” includes clinical psychologist Dr. Cheryl Wu, early childhood educator Laura Lopez, and Claudia Gordon, the first black deaf female attorney in the United States.

Though the event, scheduled for next summer, will be closed to the public, McFeely says she has plans for the Pearls celebration to be broadcast online.

“I wanted to host something for these women that was very formal and very classy,” McFeely said. “The number one goal is to celebrate and increase awareness within and about the deaf community. There is nothing that these people can’t do. They each set an example for all of us: be an actress, be a lawyer, be whatever you want to be. Focus on that passion and just let everything else fade away.”

The power and rarity of deaf role models carries personal resonance for McFeely, who says she struggled academically before she happened to have a deaf math teacher while in high school. “He was a huge influence on my life,” she remembers, “because one of the things he taught me was that I am not stupid. He taught me that the frustrations I’d been feeling all along weren’t my fault; they were the fault of my teachers who didn’t have the patience to actually sit down and teach me.”

Today McFeely and her husband, Manny Johnson, aim to instill in their young daughter a similar sense of possibility and empowerment. Together they teach Shaylee both audible speech and ASL,..... continued in ABILITY Magazine
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Amy Edwards playing polo
First Pearl Reviewed

A visual effects artist for major motion pictures, Amy Edwards is a multilingual dancer, polo player, horse lover and globetrotter. She was also one of 20 women honored by “The Pearls”, a multimedia project showcasing high-achieving deaf women from all walks of life. ABILITY Magazine’s David Radcliff caught up with Edwards via online chat.

Radcliff: Congratulations on being selected for The Pearls.

Edwards: Thanks! I’m very flattered to have been selected.

Radcliff: You’re one of four women featured in the Artists category of the project. Tell me about the kind of art you do.

Edwards: I’m a visual effects artist for feature films. I’ve worked on Fantastic Four, Pirates of the Caribbean, Spider-Man 3 and Beowulf, and some others. Mainly I do a lot of studio work. Right now I’m working on George Lucas’s next project, Red Tails.

Radcliff: Is this all freelance? The studios seek you out for individual jobs?

Edwards: That’s correct. And I’ve been doing that consistently for nine years. I work very hard to build a good reputation and I’ve been very, very fortunate to have very steady work. They seek me out because they know I’m reliable. When I make a promise to someone, I follow through. That’s important to me. It’s amazing how many people don’t do that.

Radcliff: How did you get your start in the visual effects field?

Edwards: Oh, it was something I’d known I wanted to do since I was five years old. My mom had bought me a VHS tape of Cinderella, the Disney animated version. Seeing all those mice and birds dancing while they sewed Cinderella’s dress was magic to me. Who can resist “Bibbity Bobbity Boo”?

Radcliff: Those VHS tapes didn’t have closed captioning options, if I remember right. Were you mostly filling in the blanks based on reading the expressions of the characters?

Edwards: That’s right. And fortunately the animators managed to convey the emotions very well. I didn’t have to rely on vocabulary because the body language was so nicely captured.

Radcliff: What were the reactions of your parents to your dream of working in the movies? Was there concern that your hearing might limit your opportunities?

Edwards: I don’t think so. They were very supportive, and they tried their best to raise me as “normally” as possible. Every time we went on a family vacation, my mom would bring along some paper and colored pencils, crayons, markers because she wanted to nourish my artistic talents. I also took ballet for over 11 years, mostly because every female in my family took ballet—my aunts, my cousins. And I stuck with it. I did endless plies.

Radcliff: That’s impressive. Was it difficult to learn dancing, since ballet is so structured around rhythm and music?

Edwards: Yes! It was hard! That was an area I really struggled with. My teachers would tell me “Feel the music! Feel the music!” But it’s easier said than done. I would mostly need to rely on other dancers and watch them. Those were my biggest clues. I was born in Indonesia and didn’t move to the United States until I was 13, and the teachers I had in Indonesia were not as receptive to my disability as the ones here. I don’t mean to disparage them in any way. It’s really just a cultural difference.

Radcliff: You do have some hearing, though, is that right?

Edwards: In my left ear I am completely deaf. In my right, I am severely hard of hearing and use a hearing aid. But I am very sensitive to people’s body language. Because I can’t hear everything, I rely on every non-verbal cue that I see. The tilt of a head, the emotion in people’s eyes—even a flicker of fear or trepidation or hesitation—speak volumes to me. I have done equestrian sports since I was five years old and, here in Los Angeles, I’m the only deaf member at the California Polo Club. So you really have to find ways to communicate. Sometimes your teammate might be yelling at me, “The ball is on your left, Amy!” and I may miss what they say. So I need to heighten my awareness visually to compensate. And I also have to hope that I don’t get slammed by a horse going 40 miles per hour.

Radcliff: Wow. You do a little bit of everything, it seems.

Edwards: I try to live life to the fullest. I love the adrenaline rush I get on a galloping horse. But I have a big bruise on my right knee as we speak..... continued in ABILITY Magazine
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Articles in the Greg Louganis Issue; Ashley’s Column — Bringing Home the Gold; Sen. Tom Harkin — Where Are the Jobs?; Renne Gardner — Running With My Son; The Pearls — Stories That Demand to Be Heard; Amy Edwards — A Living Special Effect; Adaptive Sports — Getting Back in the Game; X Games Uncovered — Taking the Inside Track; Cityzen — A Whole New Voice in Rock and Roll; Adaptive Sailing — Finding Your Sea Legs; Greg Louganis — Still Diving Into Life; HIV and AIDS — Battling a Fatal Disease; Bad Boys — Cracking Down on Discrimination; Healthy Hoops — Take Your Best Shot ; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe

Excerpts from the Greg Louganis Oct/Nov 2010 Issue:

Greg Louganis — Interview

The Pearls — Stories That Demand to Be Heard

Adaptive Action Sports — Getting Back in the Game

X Games Uncovered — Taking the Inside Track

Toby Forrest with the Band Cityzen

Renne Gardner — Running With My Son

Healthy Hoops — Take Your Best Shot

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