Hearing in Community

Valerie Shirley signs with her daughter Sophia Alma Jean Shirley (who was named after Shirley’s mom). (photo by Sarah Whiting)

Parents everywhere spring into action for their children,  but  not all parents are like Valerie Shirley, whose son’s challenges led to  a new career, a new community, and a new calling.

Shirley’s son Musab was born hearing, but when he was five months old, he contracted bacterial meningitis, a terrifying infection with a high mortality rate. “We really thought we were going to lose him,” she says.

When she was told Musab lost his hearing and had cognitive challenges, Shirley took it in stride. She remembered the deaf actress on “Sesame Street,” Linda Bove, and simply thought, ‘Oh, I have to learn sign language now.’

Shirley not only learned American Sign Language, she trained to become  a public school deaf education teacher. While she and  her  family  were  able to communicate with Musab, Shirley realized that would not be enough. She worried about how he would connect with the community.

“Being Muslim,” she says, “we are taught to have love for humanity, and communication is key to relationships. If you are not able to communicate, that is a break in your connection.”

Furthermore, she wanted her son to experience the richness of Islamic teaching and culture. “Islam is about generosity. It is about love and caring and sharing,” she says. “To not  be  able to understand [Islam] as the foundation of your family’s values? I cannot imagine not being able to share that with my son.”

Shirley met deaf people from Muslim families who were often disconnected or estranged from their families. She did not want that for her son. “I remember going on this quest looking for Deaf Muslims,” she recalls, thinking, “[Musab] can’t be the only one in the world.”

Her search led to the group Global Deaf Muslim, which is focused on integrating Deaf and hard of hearing people into the Muslim ummah, or community. Shirley helped GDM obtain nonprofit status in the United States, but the focus of the organization really didn’t support the needs of the Deaf in Minnesota, which included immigrants without access to signed communication.

“A lot of immigrants from Somalia had no official sign language,” Shirley explains. Some refugees living in Kenya had access to deaf education there, and some learned to read lips in Kiswahili, Somali, or other languages. Yet once in America, new immigrants are placed in remedial English classes.

“It is really difficult to learn a language that you can’t hear,” Shirley says, “and if you don’t have a foundational language to build off of, it’s twice as hard.”

In 2013, Shirley co-founded the Minnesota Deaf Muslim Community, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting the complex needs of Deaf Muslims, including literacy support, access to Friday prayers, and help with translating immigration papers and other state and federal documents. MDMC even has the ability to connect ASL interpreters with Deaf interpreters able to translate African sign languages. “Barrier to access is still very real,” she says.

It is hard work juggling a career, a nonprofit organization, religious practice, and a large blended family, but Shirley welcomes the challenge. “My love for Islam drives me to touch as many hearts as I possibly can,” she says.

Today, Musab is a thriving high school senior whose story Shirley shares with anxious parents of Deaf children. “I honestly tell them that this is going to open a whole new world that you never expected.”

Shirley never anticipated her new roles, but she relishes them. “The more connections you can make, the more people you can touch, the more you can learn and impact [others]. That’s why I’m a teacher,” she says, “Lifelong learning is my thing. The more you know, the more you grow.”

Valerie Shirley thinks everyone should strive to become more self-aware. “For 2020 we have to truly analyze self, recognize our implicit bias, and get rid of it, because we all have it. We need to use our time and resources working to dismantle institutionalized and systemic racism. That’s how we will make this world a better place.”


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