A Fantastic Blend of Education, Inspiration and Connection – My Experience at the 2017 Hands & Voices Leadership Conference

By Lee Johnston

In September of last year, I was fortunate to be able to attend the 14th annual Hands & Voices Leadership Conference. Since joining BC Hands & Voices a couple of years ago I had heard only glowing references about this conference – referred to as “Leadership” in Hands & Voices shorthand. I was admittedly a bit reluctant at first to travel to Galena, Illinois for the three-day meeting, as it was a busy time of year to be flying off and leaving my toddler behind. Luckily my parents and partner are generous folks and made it possible for me to leave for an extended weekend. So, after two flights and a 90-minute drive through seemingly endless cornfields, I arrived at Leadership, excited and a bit curious to see what all the fuss was about.

Lee at one of the breakfast networking sessions

As it turned out, the hype around the H&V Leadership conference was well-earned. I’ve been to a variety of conferences and workshops before, but Leadership is unique. It presents a fantastic blend of education, inspiration and connection with like-minded parents and professionals working to support families of deaf and hard of hearing children. The theme of the 2017 conference was “Transforming Systems with Family Engagement: The H&V Way.” Over the course of three days myself and my local chapter counterparts were immersed in discussions on a wide range of topics. Some of these related to H&V’s core programs and overall mission of providing unbiased support to families. Others imparted valuable information for leaders in non-profit, volunteer-led organizations – material that will hopefully help our H&V chapter continue to grow and thrive in the future as we build on an already strong foundation. Perhaps the most powerful conference content came in the form of personal stories – of Deaf/Hard of Hearing (D/HH) adults sharing their past struggles in navigating identity in biased systems; of parents sharing their challenges in forming and sustaining local H&V chapters; of H&V leaders describing the encounters they continue to have with professional support systems as they work to improve them for families.

Left to right- Interpreter, Janet DesGeorges & Vicki Hunting during a Leadership Speech

If I had to narrow down my Leadership experience to a few key takeaways, it would be these:

  1. We are very fortunate in British Columbia to have an early hearing screening program and three parent-driven family support organizations. I had the opportunity to speak to parents from all over the United States who are in the beginnings of supporting local H&V chapters, or trying to resuscitate ones that are faltering. Other provinces across Canada are going through similar challenges. BC is a leader in Canada on engaging parents in system transformation, and we should be proud of that!  
  2. Deaf/HH encompasses a vast range of experiences, methods of communication, and life circumstances. This may be an obvious statement, but one that was driven home time and time again throughout the conference – both from speakers and through casual conversations. Anita Dowd from Kentucky H&V gave an amazing talk highlighting some of these factors and how they impacted her decisions around her identity and language used to describe her deafness. In case you missed the link to a fantastic article capturing some of her thoughts in last month’s newsletter, the article can be found here:
  3. Parent-led organizations and family support systems will benefit by continuing to diversify their membership, not only in relation to DHH identity, but also in regards to ethnicity, culture, socio-economic status and other factors that influence parental decision making. By widening the tent and bringing more voices into the fold, we can continue to expand the reach and impact of parent-led efforts to help D/HH families.

A ballroom full of attentive Parents and Professionals.

As a first-timer at Leadership and fairly recent member of H&V, I only scraped the surface of what the annual conference has to offer. I look forward to going back next year and know that it will feel like a family reunion of sorts. Such is the magic of Hands & Voices – and the parents who drive it.

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