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When Jessalyn Akerman-Frank reached the checkout counter of a grocery store near her home in St. Paul, the cashier started chatting. Akerman-Frank pointed to her ears to indicate that she was deaf.

The cashier immediately switched modes, gesturing "Paper or plastic," pointing to the dollar amount on the screen. Akerman-Frank was impressed, so she continued frequenting the store. And, after a while, the cashier started saying, "Have a nice day, how are you?" in American Sign Language when they saw each other.

"It was such an amazing experience that now I don't shop anywhere else," Akerman-Frank said. She recommends the store to deaf friends and uses it as an example of how to connect with people in the deaf community.

The point she wants to make is: You don't have to know sign language to communicate with someone who is deaf.

"Think outside the box — gesture, text, play charades," Akerman-Frank said. "We will not be offended. There are a lot more of you than there are of us."

Akerman-Frank is acutely aware of that imbalance — about 20% of Minnesotans are deaf, deafblind or hare of hearing, according to the state's Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services Division). Every day she encounters barriers that hearing people hardly notice, such as an event announced on the radio that Akerman-Frank would have no way of knowing about.

"People who can hear can go to any movie they want, any theater, any therapist, any baseball game," she said in an interview conducted through a sign-language interpreter. "They can do whatever they want, anytime they want, and know they'll be able to understand what's going on. We don't have that."

Akerman-Frank, 48, has spent her career organizing programs that give deaf people access to the same sorts of activities and resources that hearing people have. She has received multiple awards for her efforts, most recently a 2023 Virginia McKnight Binger Unsung Hero Award.

She co-founded Deaf Equity, a Minnesota-based nonprofit serving the deaf community (a broad term that can include deaf, deafblind and hard-of-hearing people). She is an organizer for Minnesota Deaf Queers and partners with Twin Cities Pride to provide interpreters at its annual June festival. She has worked on behalf of deaf survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. She teaches yoga for deaf people, one of fewer than 25 deaf yoga teachers in the country, she said.

"If she experiences something in the hearing world, she asks, 'How can we adopt this so my people can experience what everybody else experiences?'" said her wife, Lys Akerman-Frank,with whom she has two sons. These could be as simple as asking for closed captions on the TV in a bar, so deaf people can "watch the same game as a hearing person listening to the game and having a beer," said Lys, who is not deaf.

"She is very innovative and creative," said Migdalia Rogers,who nominated Akerman-Frank for the McKnight award. "She is really somebody who makes a huge impact."

Tarra Grammenos,a sign-language interpreter, has known Akerman-Frank since she started training as an interpreter after high school and considers her a mentor.

"She showed me what it meant to be a leader, and what it meant to give back to the community you care so much about," Grammenos said. "She is a force to be reckoned with."

Jessalyn Akerman-Frank (holding award) accepted a 2023 Virginia McKnight Binger Unsung Hero Award surrounded by friends and family, including her wife, Lys (front row, fourth from left), Migdalia Rogers, who nominated her (front row,...
Jessalyn Akerman-Frank (holding award) accepted a 2023 Virginia McKnight Binger Unsung Hero Award surrounded by friends and family, including her wife, Lys (front row, fourth from left), Migdalia Rogers, who nominated her (front row,...

Molly Miles , McKnight Foundation

'Culture shock'

Akerman-Frank grew up in Sheboygan, Wis., the oldest of six children and the only deaf member of a warm, supportive family. They communicated through their own made-up system of signs, although years later when she was away at college, her entire family learned sign language to surprise her when she came home on break.

In grade school and high school, she was often in special classes for deaf students, where she learned to communicate with sign language as well as written English, had extensive speech therapy and teachers who could sign. Afterward, she spent a year attending the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Then she transferred to Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., a private college for deaf students.

She didn't know what to expect at Gallaudet. It changed the course of her life.

"It was a freeing experience," she said. "I was definitely culture-shocked."

The janitors at Gallaudet knew sign language. The cafeteria employees knew sign language. The merchants at shops surrounding the campus knew sign language. Akerman-Frank met deaf doctors, deaf lawyers and other highly educated and successful deaf people.

"Growing up I was mostly around people who could hear, so I didn't really have a lot of ideas about what I could become until I got to Gallaudet," she said. "That's a space where I developed myself. I could become somebody. I knew I had a future when I was there."

She took every class she could fit into her schedule. "I felt like I was truly catching up on my life," she said. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in communications, then earned a master's degree in deaf education at the University of Minnesota.

"Minnesota is the best kept secret," she said. "We're always in the top 10 best places to live, and I would say it's the same for the deaf community. Our deaf community is growing rapidly because people have heard about this best kept secret."

Creating deaf spaces

"I am often called the mover and shaker in our community," Akerman-Frank said. "I'm the one that comes up with ideas and makes them happen."

She helped stage a deaf version of the play "The Vagina Monologues," raising money for a deaf domestic violence program. She hosted deaf LGBTQ award ceremonies. She started an annual cookout for the deaf community, with deaf clowns, a deaf face painter and deaf chefs; it has grown to about 400 attendees.

Akerman-Frank works not only to make experiences for hearing people accessible to deaf people, but also creating new "deaf spaces" specifically tailored for that community.

"For example, I will go to a theater and I see the actors through an interpreter, but I'm not necessarily getting direct access or feeling directly involved," she said. "As opposed to a deaf show, a deaf play where I have access to those actors — not through a third person, but through direct communication."

Akerman-Frank has been diagnosed as a candidate for a cochlear implant — a small, complex electronic device that, surgically implanted, does not lead to normal hearing but can provide a sense of sound to a person who is deaf or severely hard-of-hearing and, with training, can help them understand speech.

She does not want a cochlear implant.

"I'm a very proud deaf woman," she said. "I was meant to be a deaf person. I'm perfect the way I am. I was not meant to hear. So for me it was never an option."

She makes clear, however, that everyone gets to make their own decisions about cochlear implants and she does not judge those who make different decisions, "just as I hope they do not judge me for deciding that it is not right for me," she said.

Being deaf is an integral part of Akerman-Frank's identity. It comes up so often in her interaction with the world, such as needing an interpreter for interacting with hearing people. She often talks with her interpreters to learn more about the hearing world.

"Hearing people see us as different and we're not that different when it boils down to it, right?" she said. "We have the same struggles in life, the same joys, the same grief. They use an auditory language, and we use American Sign Language, and we're proud of that."