‘Unstoppable': Deaf Women and Their Triumph
"Follow your dream and you can do it. Don't put it off...keep trying. That's what I did."
That's the advice Diane Wofford offers to anyone facing disability or hardship in any capacity.
Her words carry an even greater weight when examined in light of the mountains she's moved throughout her life, both personally and professionally.
Diane was born deaf, but has refused to let that define her, let alone limit her.
Having worked tirelessly for more than two decades as an entry level human resources employee within Disney's college programs, Wofford is now an international representative for Disney World, and loves every minute of it.
But it wasn't an easy path by any means.
Societal stigmas regarding the deaf and hearing impaired were culturally pervasive in 1960, and Wofford experienced the unfortunate misunderstanding of the disability throughout her childhood and adolescence.
Her parents never wanted her to learn sign language, but insisted upon helping Diane speak audibly, working daily to ensure that was the case, showing Diane pictures and urging her to pronounce various words.
"My mother showed me some pictures and made me pronounce the word...like "ball,” and "water.” We went over (them) every day," Wofford recalled.
Meaning well in a very different time, Wofford’s parents did everything they could to help their daughter navigate her disability. The young girl learned by feeling her parents’ necks as they spoke as a means to physically sense the vibrations associated with speech, while her mother consistently helped to relay common words or phrases and how to verbalize them, typically utilizing household items.
Touching the dog as it barked, the television as it played, and records as they crackled were all means by which Diane was taught to tangibly associate sound with meaning.
She also credits her childhood friend and neighbor, Susie, for helping her feel music and read aloud.
Reading lips is Diane’s primary means of taking in what others are saying -a skill
she began learning at the age of two-, though cochlear implants help tremendously.
“With my cochlear implant, I can hear more sounds like birds chirping, kids playing/screaming at the playground, somebody playing music in their cars, sirens. I have the Cap-tel phone but I hardly use the phone. It's difficult for me…,” Wofford said.
At ten years of age, she began to get help from a speech therapist. No doubt exhaustive, working with a speech-language pathologist furthered Diane's development in terms of communicating verbally.
Despite her progress, Diane's dependence upon hearing devices, coupled with their unavoidable visibility, drew unwanted attention, and the consistent barrage of questions regarding her reality as a deaf person took a toll.
"People stared a lot...they kept asking me questions every day....like why am I wearing a radio? Can you hear me? Can you listen to music?," she noted.
As she grew older, the limitations many people placed upon her seemed to grow exponentially. Diane was told she would never be able to do things common to most, such as take a phone call, attend a public school, or drive a car.
But she did all of those things, and much more.
Even doctors would later tell her that her children would most certainly be deaf. She has raised four children, all of whom have remarkably lacked any hearing impairment whatsoever.
Wofford fondly recalls an empowering epiphany she experienced during a college and careers course:
"When a lady read her story that she wanted to be a deaf teacher and said that kids cannot talk or do anything, I realized that she was so wrong. I raised my hand up and told everybody about what I've been doing and (about) my hearing. They asked me questions and I answered them. The professor gave me an A++. It was a good feeling,” she noted.
Soon after, Wofford applied for a position as a word processor at renowned Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Upon passing the required typing test, she finally secured a position in their human resources department in 1977.
Diane began juggling a slew of responsibilities in the college, international, and professional staffing departments, where she worked vigorously as a typist of everything from letters and reports, to time cards for nearly three decades. Bear in mind that this was no small task by any stretch of the imagination (how fitting), as Disney World has long been one of the larger corporations in existence.
Wofford could have easily allowed the piercing stares, seemingly incessant questioning of her abilities, and perceived limitations to discourage any entertained thoughts of chasing dreams, but she pressed on.
She found a way to shatter every glass ceiling that threatened to keep her encased, managing to do so while raising a family and furthering a promising career simultaneously.
It is that very same drive which compelled Diane to exceed her given job responsibilities, fueling a refusal to settle.
Always seeking out new assignments to undertake, her work ethic and willingness to pursue whatever tasks were available, while also volunteering to assist with varying events outside of her realm of responsibility, did not go unnoticed.
“‘I’ve been recognized a lot by (my) superiors...I just work harder,” added Wofford.
It is only fitting that the same woman who proudly raised her hand to respectfully declare what the deaf are capable of that day in the college and careers course, would scratch and claw her way to a prominent title with arguably the most recognizable enterprise in the world.
After 25 years of continued progress within the human resources department, Wofford was offered the position of International Representative, a far cry from the helpless afterthought she was once viewed as through the skewed lens of societal “norms.”
How appropriate that her arduous journey led to a company whose overarching vision and foundational principles are pushing the boundaries of possibility?
In September, Diane Wofford will celebrate her 40th anniversary as an International Representative for the happiest place on earth.
Moreover, she'll continue to celebrate life itself in perhaps the most appropriate setting, as a dreamer and overcomer.
- a the word changes contributor