WINDHAM — Too often decisions are made for the deaf and hard of hearing without their insight and input, particularly when it comes to language acquisition.

That’s one reason Regan Thibodeau, who was born deaf, said she wanted so much to earn a doctorate in public policy.

“This degree allows me to not only come up with potential policy solutions, it also allows me to communicate the problem at hand more effectively,” she said this week.

Thibodeau, who lives in Windham, is the first deaf person from Maine to earn a doctorate degree, and one of only 700 worldwide, according to the University of Southern Maine. She received the honor during USM’s recent graduation ceremony on May 11.

She hopes that earning a Ph.D. it will encourage other deaf and hard of hearing people to do the same.

“We need a seat at the table as stakeholders, to become politically involved and to influence the decisions that are impacting deaf people,” Thibodeau said.

“We have the most diverse Congress ever in history,” she added, “yet not one of them is a deaf person. We need deaf people (making) legislation and in government.”

The other reason she was so determined to earn a Ph.D., Thibodeau said, is that she wants to create a bridge between the deaf and hearing communities.

In terms of specific public policy goals, Thibodeau said she most wants to ensure that all deaf and hard of hearing children have choices when it comes to learning how to communicate. That includes teaching them both American Sign Language, or ASL, and English.

She’s been teaching American Sign Language and other classes on deaf culture at USM for more than 20 years and said “the best part of this job is inspiring the next generation of interpreters.”

Thibodeau said the most important lesson she imparts to her students is that “language is entwined with culture and the people that use it” and that “language is animate and evolves over time rather than staying stagnant and frozen.”

She earned her bachelor’s degree in the linguistics of ASL and interpreting from USM and her master’s in the teaching of ASL as a foreign language from Columbia University in New York.

Thibodeau grew up in Falmouth and attended Falmouth schools until transferring to the Model Secondary School for the Deaf in Washington, D.C., for high school. 

In Windham, Thibodeau was appointed to the Mineral Extraction Committee to help change some of the land use ordinances in town. She became involved because a controversial quarry was proposed near her home.

In addition to teaching at USM, Thibodeau is also a freelance Certified Deaf Interpreter, an ASL Evaluator and Consultant, and an ASL and Interpreting Trainer who travels the country and the world making presentations.

Earning a doctorate is a challenging and intense process for anyone, but Thibodeau also had trouble finding interpreters who could accurately interpret what was going on in each of her classes, and not just rely on standard ASL.

She ended up using three different interpreters, who Thibodeau said, “gave up weekends, weeknights, and summers to stay with me for the full three years of my program.” She called them “fabulous” and said they helped with all of her assignments, including reading all the material.

“I am forever thankful,” she said, “as not all deaf doctoral students are as lucky.”

What Thibodeau said she most wants people to understand about the deaf and hard of hearing is that providing broad language acquisition opportunities is the best way for them to earn autonomy and be able to communicate their wants, needs and ideas.

“For far too long, other people, especially doctors and policymakers, have made decisions about how to educate or not to educate deaf people without including deaf people,” she said. “We are only as disabled as society grants us.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 780-9097 or [email protected] Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Windham resident Regan Thibodeau is the first deaf Mainer to earn a Ph.D. She now has a doctorate in public policy from the University of Southern Maine.