Experiencing domestic violence or sexual assault is difficult and painful. Additional challenges face people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Deaf advocate Jessalyn Akerman-Frank is a pioneer in bridging and closing gaps between deaf and hard of hearing survivors and the multiple systems that provide services. She is known nationally for her work with advocates, service providers, law enforcement and the disability community. Her writings and training work have helped many people, and she is furthering that work by co-authoring a book on domestic violence in the deaf community.
For those efforts and her work with the deaf and hard of hearing LGBTQI community, Akerman-Frank is the winner of the 2015 Access Press Charlie Smith Award. She will be honored at the newspaper’s annual banquet November 6 for her lifelong dedication to community service.
The award, which honors the founding editor of Access Press, is given annually to those who provide outstanding service to Minnesota’s disability community. Akerman-Frank said she was shocked to receive the Charlie Smith Award, and considers it to be a great honor.
Akerman-Frank was nominated by Darlene Zangara and topped a large field of nominees. “The board of directors had a difficult decision, given all of the worthy nominees,” said Access Press Board Chairperson Kristin Jorenby. “Jessalyn’s work has impacted the lives of many people across the disability community.
She works with a cross-section of society through a variety of avenues. Her work reaches from the legislator to teaching adaptive yoga to all types of interested folks.”
Not only is Akerman-Frank known nationally for her work in domestic violence and sexual assault service, she has a strong commitment to the LGBTQI community. She founded the annual Deaf Pride Awards. Deaf Pride celebrated its fifth anniversary in June, where one guest described movingly how the event saved his life and helped him to be true to himself. One of her goals is to start a nonprofit organization to support the deaf LGTBQI community, to provide resources, a space and information to help people who may be struggling.
Another aspect of Akerman-Frank’s work is with deaf and hard of hearing immigrant communities, to help people get the services they need.
As a deaf lesbian and community leader, Akerman-Frank noted she made a very conscious decision “to be out and authentic in everything that I am.” While saying that she is just one example of the many different communities within the disability community, everyone shares the same needs of access, equality, education, awareness and an enhanced quality of life. “We deserve this just like everyone else.”
Akerman-Frank brings a lifelong passion for volunteerism to her work and everyday life. She is persistent and tireless in working toward her goals. “As a deaf person, I face daily barriers,” she said. “I learned to turn ‘no’ into ‘yes.’ I wanted an equal life, I wanted access to services. I want to be able to contribute as a citizen in my community, my career, and my life. I learned along my path how to do that. I overcame adversity, I faced fears, rejection, frustrations in the eyes, I turned every moment I could into a teaching moment.”
She has developed a reputation for getting things done and sees herself as being someone who is willing to work with everyone to achieve success. “These successes were not only for me, but my community. Each success opened a door. When I see people from my community finally have access to services, feel equal in what they are doing, find jobs, get the help they need, find information in their language — I see enhanced quality of life. All of these results motivate me,” she said.
She emphasizes the need to get involved in community service, as the foundation to building community and personal growth. “Every individual needs to know that they have the ability to contribute to change, influence decisions that are made about them and their lives, and make a difference,” she said.
After moving to Minnesota in 2001, Akerman-Frank became involved in as many programs and groups as she could, to learn more and to see how she could contribute. She ran a nonprofit and currently does contract work. She is developing ASL Level 2 at North High School. She also works part-time as a consultant with Minnesota Commission for Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing. Her work includes helping to support the commission’s legislative agendas.
Her upcoming projects include the Minnesota Deaf Self-Empowerment Project, to give information in the community’s language and help everyone use social media to share life experiences and resources. She’d like to expand on anti-domestic violence efforts, by encouraging others to share stories and set up programs to help survivors.
She is also working with a group to launch a statewide deaf co-op concept to fill service gaps and help people who need to find jobs and other resources.
Akerman-Frank was one of six children.“My parents never made my deafness a disability. They treated me 100 percent the same as all my hearing siblings. There was nothing different about me,” she said.
She benefitted from having good elementary school teachers who signed. “They empowered me as well to see that my difference is just one of the unique parts of the fabric of this life. I lived and thrived on that. I was born this way because and this is my life to live.”
Communication was a challenge but when Akerman-Frank once came home from a break at Gallaudet University, her entire family including aunts, uncles and cousins had learned American Sign Language to support her as a deaf person.
Akerman-Frank is married to her wife Lys Akerman-Frank, a puppet designer and owner of Art N Frames LLC. They are raising three boys, Sam, Ben and Anthony. The family also includes dogs Zulu and Pluto. Akerman-Frank traches yoga as a hobby and is the only deaf yoga teacher in Minnesota.
Learning to teach yoga as another challenge she was able to overcome. Akerman-Frank will speak at the award banquet. Tickets are available, as are sponsorship opportunities, the ability to be a table host and the ability to donate to the silent auction and pick-your- prize raffle. You can learn more about this year’s banquet here, where you can order tickets or to find other ways to get involved. Or call the newspaper office at 651-644-2133.