A HSDC Legacy
Karen Philo-House, one of our most beloved and long-term staff members of our Hearing, Speech & Deaf Center (HSDC) family, retired as a Parent-Infant Program (PIP) Specialist this past May. She leaves behind an extraordinary legacy whose impact in our community cannot be overstated and will be felt for decades to come. We all owe her an enormous debt for her contributions to furthering HSDC’s mission and making our community a better place for Deaf, DeafDisabled, DeafBlind, Hard of Hearing, and Late Deafened individuals.
We often say HSDC is a unique organization because while other organizations serve a population for a specific time period we are able to serve a population for a lifetime, from birth onward. This means witnessing the long arc of some truly remarkable journeys. Some even join the HSDC family as staff to leave a legacy of their own and continue to pass it forward. We see this time and again-, those who come through the Parent-Infant Program go on to live extraordinary lives and give back to the community. Karen is one of many.
Karen, well known for being humble, is also known for her dedicated service in the community and her relentless advocacy for families with Deaf children. She never wavered from her commitment to these families. This passion carried her through the decades in pursuit of one all-encompassing goal: Make sure every Deaf child who comes through the doors at HSDC has access to language at home and in the classroom, and make sure families receive support in this.
This belief stems from her own personal experience; Some may not know that Karen’s connection to HSDC didn’t begin as a staff member, it started at the beginning, as a Deaf child in PIP. The program today, previously under Karen’s oversight, is still designed to support families with Deaf children under the age of three through education, advocacy, and learning American Sign Language and having exposure to written English. It is one of the longest-running programs HSDC offers, free of charge, and its impact on the community is significant.
Karen is so much more than a professional who was good at her job during her time at HSDC. She was (and remains) a beacon of hope for families. The first few years can be a difficult time to navigate as a family with a Deaf child, the stakes are high. It is critical to ensure Deaf children, from birth to three, have access to language and connection. The ability to meet families where they are with empathy and guide them with her expertise gives parents the confidence that with sign language and access, a wonderful world awaits their child. They can see for themselves the end results in Karen and know it is true.
Long before she worked in PIP, she began her career at HSDC as an Independent Living Teacher in 1984. Years later (and with a new master’s degree in hand), she became an ASL teacher in the Parent-Infant Program. When the program had a job opening for a PIP Specialist she applied and became the first Deaf PIP Specialist at HSDC. Her legacy for making a difference and leading others was well underway.
Karen has seen the evolution of PIP over the decades; She remembers, as a child, when PIP was an oral program. Over time she has witnessed it change from an emphasis on oral communication towards using Signing Exact English before adopting a Total Communication approach (simultaneous signing and talking). This eventually gave way to using American Sign Language. Now the program proudly embraces a bilingual and bicultural environment that combines American Sign Language with written English. Through all the changes over the years, the heart of the program remained (and remains) the same- a desire to see every Deaf child thrive with access to language and connection.
Like the PIP program itself, HSDC as an organization has seen many changes and Karen has been right there for many of them. Not all changes were easy to navigate. Karen recounts an especially difficult period when a neighboring organization and Deaf community hub Community Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (CSCDHH) closed its doors. It proved to be a rocky time in HSDC’s relationship with a grieving community that rightfully mourned the loss of a culturally significant place in Seattle.
The world at large is a different place for Deaf people today than it was three decades ago. Jobs for Deaf people were scarce; very few employers were willing to hire Deaf people. Then, employment meant choosing between working for a printer or for the U.S. Post office. Today, Deaf people work in a wide variety of fields and professions from aerospace engineers to constitutional law lawyers who write compelling legal briefs in English and present arguments in sign language before the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, many employers are still unwilling to hire Deaf people and so much work remains. PIP is a key part of that work, with big-picture gains; PIP’s ongoing commitment to Deaf children’s language access and education gives Deaf children a stronger foothold later in life.
Today, as a self-professed bookworm, Karen’s love of language shines bright and she is reading more than ever. Not one to rest, she remains deeply engaged in serving her community. She will contract with the Office of Deaf and Hard of Hearing (ODHH) in Washington State for their Family Mentoring Services program. This role will leverage her skills to coordinate mentors who work with Deaf youth from birth to 16 as well as their family members. Also, at both the national and state level, her Lead K committee is pushing to pass an education bill that furthers the mission of sign language access for Deaf children in each state. This bill has successfully passed in sixteen states, and Washington is well-positioned to be next. Karen additionally continues her work with the DeafBlind community, as she has since 1981, as a DeafBlind interpreter, an SSP, and as a Communication Facilitator.
It’s not all work in her retirement, some time is reserved for play. She is already traveling more, as her recent trip to Alaska demonstrates, and the purchase of a travel trailer means she will hit the road soon, visiting different states and connecting with old friends. She has begun to learn two new languages and knowing her, we can say with confidence she will read through a continually replenished stack of books.
It’s not quite goodbye for us. She will continue to work with PIP families, teaching them sign language as she always has as an independent contractor. We look forward to witnessing the rest of her journey because truly, HSDC is not just an organization and our employees are not just staff, what we do is a calling with a higher purpose and our employees are lifelong family members committed to the ongoing support of extraordinary humans who make our world a better place.
“I’m glad I got to work at HSDC- they offered me the opportunity to grow personally and professionally. It was worth it.” You can’t ask for much better than that at the end of a long, successful career.
We send Karen all of our love and gratitude as she continues her journey with the same humility, passion, and commitment she has always had. How lucky the world is and how lucky we all are.
If you would like to donate in honor of Karen’s retirement and a fund that supports preschool children, here’s the link https://www.hsdc.org/ways-to-give/#donation