A Fighting SpiritFeb 01, 2020 ● By Allie Spletter
Frisco resident and author Avril Hertneky is deaf and is no stranger to hardships. She has made it her life’s work to advocate for herself and others in the deaf community who might not always have the same level of opportunities others do. She and her husband, Brian (who is also deaf), hope to help invoke change in the area so the deaf community might one day feel fully-integrated into society.
A Toronto native, Mrs. Hertneky was born to Iraqi parents who did not accept the fact that she was deaf. She grew up feeling unloved because her parents did not accept her and treated her differently. Mrs. Hertneky recalls, “My parents moved from Iraq and they hoped I would have a better future in Canada, but I had a negative identity as a deaf person. My siblings are not deaf. My family was abusive, they gaslighted me and my parents would make me think there was something wrong with me. It was very confusing for me, but the issue was that my parents did not accept me.”
Her parent’s unwillingness to accept the fact that she was deaf resulted in isolation for Mrs. Hertneky, as she was not allowed to go out and was not educated like other children. It was not until high school that Mrs. Hertneky went to a deaf school where she would finally learn American Sign Language (ASL) and have interaction with other deaf people. But, even there, teachers critiqued her on things they felt she should have known all along that her parents had not taught her and that she had not had exposure to. “In school, I was bullied because there were things I did not know. I feel like I was robbed of so many things, so I was very thankful to the deaf school. They taught me so much, and, now, they feel like my family. There were deaf people there and I had never met another deaf person. I met another child that had deaf parents, which was very new to me. For those children, everything in the home was signed,” she shares.
Mrs. Hertneky went on to study at the Rochester Institute of Technology in N.Y., where she met her husband who she says saved her life in many ways. The Hertnekys moved to Frisco a year ago and have two hearing children. Mr. Hertneky is on the Region 5 Board at the Texas Association of the Deaf and Mrs. Hertneky is the secretary for the organization.
Understandably, Mrs. Hertneky faces many challenges living in a hearing world as a deaf person, and in some aspects, living in Frisco and making it a home comes with challenges as well. “When we moved here, we found that there are not many deaf people here, so we had to go out and find deaf people to meet. I have had exposure with the police to educate them about deaf people, but the community’s awareness has been slower. If I need to ask my neighbor for something, I have to let people know I am deaf and that my English may not be 100 percent perfect. In some cases, they have made fun of me because neighbors do not understand that a deaf person’s English is sometimes in a different word order than ASL, so we are perceived as not as articulate as some. The English and expressive language is different to others when they do not understand that, which can be interpreted as me being dramatic to some hearing people,” Mrs. Hertneky explains. “Frisco is more rural and the public services are less. In Dallas, it is easier to find a deaf person or someone who is aware of deaf people. Frisco just does not seem to have that awareness or exposure yet. It has been a bit of a different perspective, but we have to go and meet people, and it is not like there is a deaf announcement that says ‘I am deaf,’ so it takes time to find people and events. It is slow to make those connections when you are new to a community, even though we are in a large city.”
Mrs. Hertneky admits she is often intimidated that a hearing person will make fun of her, but also understands that it just takes time for hearing people to be exposed to ASL and the deaf community for them to understand that deaf people are as normal as the next person, with the exception that they cannot hear. In addition to language barriers, the Hertnekys and members of the deaf community often face challenges in the form of obtaining a job, facing isolation due to language barriers, doing everyday tasks like going to the movies (closed captioning devices are often broken) and even riding an elevator given that others are expected to speak into the speaker if the elevator gets stuck and there is an emergency.
Mrs. Hertneky had her first child in Canada, but after the negative birthing experience of her second child and hospital stay at a nearby hospital that left her feeling disenfranchised, Mrs. Hertneky hopes to invoke change in the community and advocate for others. Of her experience, Mrs. Hertneky says the hospital refused to obtain an ASL interpreter due to budget constraints, which left her with little access to clear communication. A deaf service out of Fort Worth ended up helping her obtain an interpreter for the birth of her second child at the last minute. The Hertnekys were not able to communicate with staff, and Mrs. Hertneky feels the staff was not trained in a manner to adequately care for deaf patients or visitors.
She hopes to make a difference through action and says, “My goal has been the hospital. I really want that to impact the community. If a baby is born, deaf parents often hear ‘I am so sorry,’ and that needs to stop. My hope is that hospitals will provide deaf mentorship programs for the births of deaf babies to promote guidance and awareness, and to provide resources to parents about raising deaf children. Right now, hospitals are very resistant to any part of that. My goal is to form a bill and take on that fight so it will change the hospital’s perspective.”
Mr. and Mrs. Hertneky hope to continue to break stereotypes in a way that fosters partnership and understanding. Mr. Hertneky shares, “The change cannot just come from the two of us hoping to change stereotypes. We need more deaf people involved and we need to be involved in the community … not only deaf people but hearing people too. The more exposure deaf people have, the more likely they are to be acknowledged. I want to feel that hearing people welcome the deaf community and not that they try to limit us and limit our access. I want them to also learn from us the same way we learn from a hearing person.”
Much of that change can come from the hearing community understanding simple things about deaf people that might help enlighten them to some of the struggles in a deaf person’s world. Mrs. Hertneky says, “We are very loud! We often cannot hear ourselves, so we do not know just how loud we are. We use the lights to turn off and on for attention, just like hearing people calling out names to others. Light is a must, and we cannot live without light! Some deaf people can hear very loud noises or feel vibrations from loud noises. There are schools for the deaf. We are very good drivers! ASL does not follow English rules. We are all family. Every time we meet deaf people, we are excited to meet them!”
Mrs. Hertneky is so passionate about helping others and making sure she has an impact in the community that she has written a book about her life and experiences. “From Rejection to Love” is the story of how much she went through at a young age – a story she wanted to share in an effort to educate hearing parents and adults to understand as much as possible. “There are many deaf people who experienced the same thing as I did growing up. The book is my true story, but one I want to get out there so others can understand what a deaf person has experienced. I can use it so this does not happen to other deaf people,” she says.
Mrs. Hertneky received an amazing amount of positive feedback from readers who have encouraged her to keep fighting. “They tell me not to give up and keep going – that I need to do this. They believe in me and have been very thankful,” she concludes.
Though the Hertnekys have been through a lot, they find themselves lucky to live in a place like Frisco. Mrs. Hertneky says, “We are very lucky that we ended up here. We feel like this is our home now.” In her spare time, Mrs. Hertneky loves going to the Frisco Diner and taking her kids to the splash pad.
While they have settled into a life here in Frisco, neither Mr. or Mrs. Hertneky feel their work is done and have big plans for the future. “I want to continue to fight and become an ambassador while bringing change to hospitals. I want to fight so parents have exposure enough to know that it is not the end of the world to have a deaf child. It is important to love all people, and it is possible for those children to be successful. My hope is that other deaf people who have faced hardships feel like they can share their stories. I want God to touch hearing people’s hearts and to lead me to be successful. I even want to meet the president one day and sign a bill that provides equal rights for a deaf person in a hospital,” she shares.
Mrs. Hertneky’s book title says everything about her journey … from rejection to love. Her resilience and fighting spirit are the reasons she is where she is today, and the courage she lives with daily is a testament to the strides she has taken in life to find love, success and exposure for the deaf community.