One woman from Iowa has used her personal experience with hearing loss, sign language and the power of music and interpretive art to change the lives of children from Waterloo and beyond.
Kei-Che Randle is a 31-year-old deaf woman, born to a hearing family. A native of Waterloo, Randle relied on lip reading, hearing aids and closed captioning for communication during her youth. Randle also recited slam poetry, where poets perform spoken word poetry before a live audience, to practice word pronunciation – an experience that would pay dividends later in life. She first learned American Sign Language (ASL) while attending the University of Northern Iowa – a challenging undertaking that Randle says required a combination of courage and persistence.
“It’s about believing in yourself and building confidence,” Randle said.
After receiving hearing implants at age of 25, Kei-Che happened to hear “Angel of Mine” by Monica, a song she had known and loved for years, on her commute to work. Though she’d heard the song many times, this particular listening led to an epiphany. “What if there was a way to share the music on the radio in a way that deaf and hard of hearing people could enjoy,” she wondered.
This question inspired the creation of Def (Deaf) Gospel Jam, a concert performance featuring 20 students signing 10 songs in ASL to educate and inspire the more than 100 people in the audience. That effort led to Randle founding Songs to Enhance People Signing (STEPS), a program that teaches ASL to K-12 students, with music as a catalyst. Randle’s goal isn’t only to teach ASL, but to normalize it as a common language for both the hearing and deaf communities.
“Nationally, we’re making steps, but we could be making quicker steps in the community if all hands were on deck,” she said.
Randle has become an outspoken advocate for education and inclusion. Growing up, Kei-Che had a difficult time feeling like she belonged, which fuels her fervent desire to increase Black representation in the deaf community and provide resources to those who need them.
“It’s important that I continue to connect people, because I felt like I was so alone at the time when I wasn’t; I just didn’t have the resources,” Randle said.
Through STEPS, Randle is able to provide resources and a sense of community for participating students. STEPS also places an emphasis on inclusion and representation, which allows students to work with Black interpreters, deaf mentors and others who can relate to their experience.
Due to the pandemic, most of Randle’s STEPS program was virtual in 2020. The lack of in-person contact has presented its own set of challenges, but through livestreams, tutoring sessions and social media videos, she encouraged a broader audience of people across the country to learn ASL, including her two young hearing children, Zion and Zaire.
Though she relocated to California to serve as a teacher of the deaf, Randle continues to keep Iowa at the forefront of her efforts. In June 2021, she will return to Waterloo and host STEPS’ second annual in-person summer camp. There are hopes of expanding the camp to other communities like Cedar Rapids and Des Moines in the future.