It’s been 40 years since Peggy Williams first began learning a second language, talking with her hands, her face, her body, and bridging a gap between the hearing and the deaf communities.
Williams was one of Lincoln’s early interpreters for large groups, interpreting for political speakers Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jesse Jackson, for AA conventions, at Lied Center performances and for entertainers Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers and Jerry Lewis.
She helped the Independence Center, a local addiction treatment program, learn to work with clients who are deaf.
She helped make domestic violence services available to people who are deaf and received the YWCA Everyday Hero award for that work.
She helped set up the Sertoma clubs’ hearing aid bank, where used hearing aids are reconditioned and given to seniors with hearing loss.
She helped write legislation that created mental health services for the deaf in the mid-1990s.
And much more.
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It all started on a hill in Fort Smith, Ark.
Williams, then 18, with a big heart and short blond hair, was sitting on the side of a hill, watching her little brother’s baseball game.
There was a young boy, maybe 12 or 13, trying to make it up the hill on crutches and leg braces.
She watched his slow, ungainly progress and noted his determination. She didn’t know who he was or why he wore braces. But his efforts moved her.
“It brought tears to my eyes. It still does. He’s the one who helped me decide what I was going to do with my life.”
First, Williams did what her mother wanted; she took the practical path. She finished business school. She got a job doing accounting work at a men’s clothing store.
But when she was 21, Williams took a job with the Arkansas Children’s Colony, an institution for children with severe disabilities, much like the Beatrice State Development Center. She was a teacher to children who were deaf or blind, or both, helping them learn basic skills.
She had just one student who could sign. The rest could not communicate.
One young woman would toss chairs, throw food out of the cabinets, just to indicate she was hungry.
Determined to help, Williams began taking sign language classes, driving the 25 miles to Little Rock twice a week.
And as she learned, she taught. One day, the young woman walked into the classroom, looked calmly at Williams and put her fingers to her lips, as if picking up a morsel of food and tasting it.
“I knew at that point, this was my love; this was my passion.”
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She moved to Nebraska in 1975, following a brother.
Williams missed the mountains. She missed the water. She missed the trees of home. She was going to stay for just a summer.
“I never left. Nebraska just grabbed me up and held on. It has been a wonderful place to raise my children and grandchildren.”
In 1981, Williams began working for the state Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. She had found her home, and today she is a mental health specialist helping people find counseling, helping counselors and counseling services work with people who are deaf and hard of hearing.
In Arkansas, as she began learning American Sign Language, she immersed herself. “I ate, drank and slept signing. If there was music on the radio I would sign it.”
In Nebraska she began learning more about the deaf culture, attending social events, making friends.
“If you don’t understand the culture of the deaf. You are not going to understand the language of the deaf,” she says.
The body and the face are a key part of communication. Someone who doesn’t understand the language could wonder why the person signing is so emotional, or so upset.
A perfect example, Williams said, occurred as Hurricane Sandy threatened New York last year. At a news conference involving Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the interpreter was very expressive in signing his words, so expressive that Saturday Night Live made it into a skit.
When the mayor talked of falling trees, high winds, heavy rain and rising waters, the interpreter made sure her face, hands and body conveyed the urgency to those who could not hear.
A falling tree took both arms to convey. One arm was the ground and the other was the tree.
When Bloomberg said, “It is dangerous,” viewers could see the danger on the interpreter’s face.
The hearing community doesn’t understand how important it is for the interpreter to show emotion, Williams says.
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Williams has a way of empathizing with people, friends and coworkers say. And that skill works both ways in her work with the hearing and deaf communities.
She incorporates the deaf community in planning. And she helps the hearing world understand deafness, says Ron Felton, who worked with Williams to create addiction treatment programs that could work for clients who were deaf or hard of hearing.
“There are very few hearing people who understand deafness like she does,” Felton says.
“She understood that if we couldn’t penetrate the language and cultural barriers (of the deaf) we would never get to the alcoholism,” he says.
Williams’ passion is communication, and in her career, she’s seen the impact of technology.
The telephone didn’t work for people who were deaf. So in the 1950s, “if Mary wanted to set up a time to meet with Sue, she’d get in her car, drive to Sue’s house and say, ‘do you want to have lunch?'”
Then, technology allowed communication over a distance. First was the TTY or TDD that sent typed messages over phone lines. Then came the video phone that allowed deaf people to talk in their own language to each other. Mobile phones now provide for easy sharing of text messages.
It’s the same technology, however, that robs the hearing community of real communication, Williams says.
“I call it the look down society — everyone looking down at a cellphone to text each other.”
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Williams continues to be a wonderful advocate for the deaf and hard of hearing, says her boss, Peter Seiler, the deaf commission’s executive director.
“She is very, very, very sensitive to individuals who want help,” he says.
She now is working with Methodist College in Omaha to set up training programs for nurses, social workers and health care professionals on how to provide effective health care to people with hearing loss and deafness.
She just found out she’s getting a grant for a workshop on identity theft. And she is helping plan an educational TV show on hearing loss that will air in April.
She still is being blessed, she says, because of that hill.