COLUMBIANA, Ohio – Tucked inside a condo development in Columbiana, Ohio, lives a rising star one might never suspect.
Armed with her hearing dog, Sue Thomas is ready to take on the world – starting with a television show based on her life that hits the air waves this fall on PAX TV.
Silence. At 18 months old, the world of sound turned off for Thomas. As she sat in the living room with her family in Boardman, Ohio, the television sound suddenly fell silent although the picture kept moving.
Although it was never determined why Thomas suddenly went deaf, she has never regained her hearing.
At her parents’ urging, Thomas spent years working with speech therapists learning to speak and read lips by feeling her therapist’s vocal chords and trying to mimic in her own throat what she felt with her hands.
Last year, on her 51st birthday, Thomas had a conversation with God. She told him she’d had a great first 50 years and that he was going to have to work overtime to top those years.
And work overtime he did; He topped all 50 of those years in one single year, she said – with a signed contract from a television producer.
Due time. From working surveillance for the FBI to writing an autobiography to turning into a national speaker, Thomas was a television show waiting to happen.
Her illustrious life will soon be the basis of a new PAX television show starting in October.
The television drama, Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye, will air Sunday nights at 9 p.m. The season two-hour opener kicks off Oct. 13, 9 p.m.
PAX is distributed by nationwide broadcast television, cable and satellite distribution systems. If it isn’t on a broadcast station in your area, check with your cable provider for local listings.
Special agent. After graduating from Springfield College in Massachusetts in 1976 with degrees in political science and international relations and doing graduate work at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Thomas wasn’t able to find a job.
But when she saw that the FBI was specifically looking for deaf people to search and classify fingerprints, Thomas took a chance and went to Washington.
Because the job of counting the lines and swirls in a fingerprint requires a high level of concentration, the bureau was looking for people whose concentration would not be broken by sounds in the room.
While working in the fingerprint department, a case came through the office that changed Thomas’ life.
An important video’s sound mechanism had failed, and the agents asked Thomas if she could tell what was being said just by reading the subjects’ lips – and of course, after years of speech therapy, Thomas could make out just about every word.
“From that day on, I never went back to fingerprints,” she said.
Thomas’ FBI career grew. She mainly dealt with reading lips in white-collar crime and drug-related cases. Not only did she work from videos, but she also worked in the field, in real-life situations.
Because she couldn’t hear, Thomas relied on her eyesight for everything – her job, her communication. Back in those days, she said if someone would’ve given her a pair of field glasses, she would have been able to give verbatim feedback of a conversation across the large lake near her condo.
Change of course. But these days, lip-reading isn’t so easy.
Sixteen months ago, Thomas was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
The disease, which disrupts the nerves’ ability to conduct impulses to and from the brain, has attacked Thomas’ eyes first.
Already her eyesight is deteriorating rapidly and it is getting more difficult for her to read lips.
She has recently applied for another service dog in case she ends up needing help walking or in a wheelchair.
Because she is also deaf, Thomas is looking at a Canada program that trains service dogs for both hearing and multiple sclerosis. However, only Canada citizens can get these dogs, and Thomas does not know of any facilities like this in the United States.
Canine hearing help. Thomas got her first hearing dog, Levi, in 1986 and he opened up a whole new world for her.
He taught her how to hear, she said, and she ended up relying on him for her ears.
One day, after Levi’s first week home from the training center, Thomas was in the shower when Levi suddenly burst in and jumped into the bathtub. Her first thought was: “They never taught me about this!”
But Levi was excited and persistent so Thomas got out of the shower and followed Levi to the door, and “sure enough, UPS was there.”
She said she was amazed and thought, “This is what it’s like to hear.”
After 10 1/2 years, Levi died from cancer, and Thomas got her second hearing dog, Grace, the dog with her now. Unfortunately, Grace was also recently diagnosed with cancer.
Helping dogs. Thomas said hearing dogs respond to repetitious sound, and notify their owner of the sound by physical contact.
For example, if Grace hears the phone ringing, she finds Thomas, leads her to the phone and sits by it so Thomas will know that is where there is sound.
Before being teamed up with a hearing dog, Thomas said she felt insecure.
When she moved off campus in college, she spent several nights alone before her roommate moved in. Thomas said she couldn’t sleep through the night because she knew that if someone broke in, she would never hear him or her.
But then she got a hearing dog, and said, “I realized I could leave that window open all night and I’d be safe.”
Road to fame. From The Today Show to TV Guide to newspaper interviews, Thomas’ name is catching on.
She is already doing press time to promote Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye.
Thomas has had an active role in the creation of the series. She spent two weeks in Toronto during the pilot’s taping and got to meet the cast. The woman portraying Thomas is Deanne Bray, a severely deaf actress.
Thomas said the second she saw the demo tapes, she knew Bray was the perfect choice. The actress already feels like her younger sister, Thomas said.
The two women have made an effort to spend time together so that Bray knows the woman she is portraying. During a short break from shooting, Bray made the five-hour trip to Thomas’ home so she could meet the family, see where and how Thomas lives and get to know her better.
And Bray is always asking Thomas if things really happened the way they are filming; Thomas almost always says, believe it or not, yes.
This television show has been in the making for 12 years with several different production companies, since Thomas wrote her autobiography Silent Night.
Speaking out. Nowadays Thomas is jetted from location to location, state to state and soon country to country to give interviews, appearances and, of course, her motivational speeches.
After working for the FBI for several years, Thomas realized there was something else out there meant for her. This led her to Columbia Graduate School of Bible and Mission in Columbia, S.C.
Here is where a 5-minute classroom speech on being deaf ended up opening a whole new world for her.
After the short speech, someone in the class asked if she would speak at another event, and the speech career evolved from there. She now belongs to the Nashville Speakers Bureau, which handles all of her speaking arrangements.
With all the publicity from the new television show, they’re working overtime, Thomas laughed.
Second glance. Thomas has gotten so fluent with speaking and lip reading, that many people meeting her for the first time don’t realize she is deaf. Most think she just has an accent.
“The first thing I say when I meet someone is not, ‘Hi, I’m Sue Thomas, and I’m deaf,'” she said.
However, after several minutes into the conversation, Thomas usually says, “I’m deaf, and I read lips, and we’re doing a good job.”
For more information about the show, visit http://www.pax.tv/shows/suethoma/.
For more information on speech, language and hearing disorders, call the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association at 800-638-8255 or visit www.asha.org.
(You can contact Kristy Alger at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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