Profile By: Nicole Leigh White
Ann Eckberg was born in 1947. Although she lost her hearing when she was nine years old, she never considered the loss a “handicap.” In fact, she learned sign language and spent her life using her voice and helping others to do the same. She earned a bachelor’s degree in education at Gallaudet University in 1969 and then a Master of Fine Arts in art at Catholic University in 1972. In 1970, Eckberg was hired as an art teacher by the Vocational Department at the Nebraska School for the Deaf (NSD), a primary and secondary residential school that specialized in the education of deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Eckberg worked at the school for nearly thirty years. In 1981, she became the first deaf individual to teach at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO). Eckberg also did her share of teaching outside the classroom, advocating tirelessly for the Deaf community throughout her adult life, especially to improve Deaf education. Eckberg suffered a heart attack in her home and passed away at the age of 54.
The place of disability as a concept . . . has simply not been understood or excavated because it’s not in the archive.
–Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “What Her Body Taught”
So reads the idyllic slogan of Princeton, Illinois. In this same small city, on February 16, 1947, Ann Elizabeth Eckberg was born. Nine years later, she would be the only child in her neighborhood to contract spinal meningitis—an infection that would permanently rob her of her ability to hear. Because she had been struck with this tragic and debilitating handicap, her day-to-day life was to be characterized by struggle and isolation. Eckberg, it seemed, was the victim of a cruel fate. Yet, she bore her misfortune with an unassuming, angelic patience. Until her untimely death, she remained sequestered from the world and meekly carried on with life—the way that
The hearing world did not generally share Eckberg’s self-affirming outlook concerning deafness. In 1956, immediately following the onset of her hearing impairment, a doctor suggested that Lawrence and Letha Eckberg’s daughter was, by virtue of her newly acquired “disability,” incapable of learning. Subsequently, he advised them to send her to a state institution for the “mentally retarded” (Pritchard 7). At the time, medical authorities attempted to paint these publically-funded establishments as the most optimal setting for disabled children. Many parents, faced with limited educational avenues for their children, agreed to commit them to these “asylums” (see Figure 1). However, an often gruesome reality was housed within these institutes: many were unsanitary, overcrowded, under-supervised, poorly funded, plagued with abuse, and predicated on the undifferentiated treatment of residents’ various conditions and needs (see Figure 2). Had Eckberg ended up at one of
In 1970, Eckberg was hired as an art teacher by the Vocational Department at the Nebraska School for the Deaf (NSD), a primary and secondary residential school that specialized in the education of deaf and hard-of-hearing children (see Figure 5). Students who attended NSD regarded their alma mater as the only place where they weren’t constantly reminded of their deafness—a place where they could be at home, so-to-speak. Eckberg worked at the school for nearly thirty years and came to regard it not only as her workplace, but also as her second and truest family. Throughout her time at the school, she would impart immeasurable knowledge and encouragement to “hundreds of children,” many of whom went on to pursue college careers, engage in lucrative professions, and raise prosperous families (Eckberg 1B). In addition to the time that Eckberg spent instructing
It is commonly said that “all good things must come to an end”; this axiom holds true concerning Eckberg’s time at UNO. In 1984, the Board of Regents threatened to cut the Teaching the Hearing Impaired program, despite the facts that the program was growing and its graduates were in high demand throughout the Omaha metro. Amidst this controversy, the program’s founder, Barbara Luetke-Stahlman, left the University. Shortly thereafter, Eckberg followed suit. Although future students sustained an incalculable educational loss as a result of Eckberg’s resignation, her legacy is still alive in the numerous special educators across the nation who once reaped immense benefits from her presence. And, thanks to the oppositional efforts of Eckberg and proponents of the Special Education Department at UNO, the degree path, which was renamed the Education of the Deaf/Hard of Hearing program, is still
Ms. Eckberg lobbied continually for the educational rights of deaf children. Likewise, she sought to improve the social conditions and assert the civil rights of all deaf citizens. Outside of school hours, she worked as a news editor and secretary for the Omaha Association of the Deaf, a social group geared toward fostering a sense of community amongst deaf residents. Furthermore, she served on the Midwest Telephone Relay Board to ensure that optimally accessible, high-quality services were being provided for regional deaf citizens who relied on TTY systems to communicate via telephone (to read more about TTY, visit http://www.michdhh.org/assistive_devices/text_telephone.html). She participated in these activities throughout the 1970s and 80s, eventually waging a much more public battle for the deaf community.
In 1988, a local judge told Ann Eckberg that she could not serve jury duty, citing her deafness as a disqualifier. Most people would have resigned themselves to the overawing authority of law, but Eckberg was not like most people. On the spot, she indicted the judge, who had pulled her aside from a line of prospective jurors. In an unflinchingly frank tone, before everyone present at the Douglas County courthouse, she asserted that he was discriminating against her. Of the incident, she recounted, “I could have told them that I didn’t want to serve and gotten off, but I felt that I had to fight to get what was mine” (Geer 17). In an added comment, she stressed that this fight was not just for her own benefit, professing, “I’ve had students who say they can’t. I told them
Despite their numerous, hard-earned triumphs, Eckberg and the deaf community in Nebraska experienced a tremendous overhaul in 1998. Amidst overstated budget reports and a shortsighted institutional thrust to mainstream deaf children, the Nebraska School for the Deaf was forced to close its doors (see Figure 10) (see contextual essay). Of the period of time immediately following the demise of the school, Eckberg stated: “I felt betrayed… I needed a break from all the heartache and fighting our NSD family had gone through over the years. So instead of looking for another teaching job, I worked to change the mindset of those with the power to make changes. This was not to be” (Eckberg B1). Discouraged but refusing to resign herself, Eckberg looked for teaching jobs throughout the city of Omaha.
Yet, regardless of her outstanding educational attainments and extensive teaching experience,
Just over a year after this passionate editorial was published, Eckberg suffered a heart attack in her home and passed away at the age of 54. After her death, her surviving family put her personal possessions up for public auction. Fortunately, a graduate of NSD successfully bid on these items, and today, they are duly preserved in the Nebraska Deaf Heritage Museum and Cultural Center Archives. When I visited the museum recently, I had the privilege of perusing some of Eckberg’s effects. Her photographs, most of which documented her time at NSD, emanated the playful warmth that was so central to her being (see Figures 11a and 11b).
I was also able to set my eyes upon several pieces of art that had been created by Eckberg, including an exquisitely stained vase, a self-styled silhouette, and a realistic landscape picturing a