February 17, 2018

Susan Cohen | Movers & Shakers 2002

Jumping Barriers

Using special abilities to assist those with special needs

Susan Cohen originally didn’t want to be a librarian. She was told librarians had to have strong communication skills and that was a skill set she worried she didn’t have. It wasn’t that she was shy; she was born profoundly deaf. Her mother contracted German measles in the first trimester of pregnancy.

But today Cohen, 43, is head of information services at the Special Needs Library in the Montgomery County Public Library System (MCPLS), MD. She has worked there since 1984.

“I was planning on becoming a teacher for the deaf,” she says via e-mail. Then she attended the National Association for the Deaf Convention in Baltimore, where she met Alice Hagemeyer, a well-regarded librarian for the deaf community. Hagemeyer told Cohen about a job as a library specialist for the deaf community at MCPLS. The rest is history.

“I discovered I didn’t want to be anywhere but the library,” she writes. “It was love at first sight. I realized I had found my calling.” It was October 1984, and Cohen would go on to help set up the Special Needs Library there.

Today, her duties encompass a wide range of responsibilities. In addition to being head of information services, she also supervises children’s, adult, and reference services and coordinates collection development, homebound services, and deaf services.

However, her skill at dealing with the public is where she shines. For someone who early on worried that her deafness might be a disadvantage, she has learned how to listen to people.


Current position: Head of Information Services, Special Needs Library, Montgomery County Public Library System, MD

Degree: Western Maryland College, M.Ed. in Deaf Education, 1982

Activities: Deaf and hard-of-hearing community delegate, Maryland Governor’s Conference on Libraries & Information Services

Cohen is able to lip read most people whom she meets. For those few whom she can’t understand–a co-worker from Taiwan has an accent that sometimes confuses Cohen–she relies on the built-in note pad program on the library’s computers. She also uses e-mail, a relay service and a teletypewriter for phone calls, and an interpreter comes into the library twice a week.

“Most of our customers have been very understanding and patient with me,” she writes. There was only one instance in her 17-year career when someone refused her help because she was deaf. Cohen’s boss, Charlette Stinnett, the agency head of the Special Needs Library, observed what was happening and stepped in. The woman eventually realized that Cohen was capable of helping her. “The support I received from my supervisor made a difference.”

Stinnett is equally generous with her praise of Cohen. “She just amazes me every day,” she says. “I often forget she’s deaf, and there have been times when I tried to whisper things in her ear.” But it is her professionalism and dedication to the special needs of the library patrons that impresses Stinnett the most.

“She can be very focused,” Stinnett says. “She’s excellent at project management. She’s an excellent trainer.”

Together, the two oversee a library that serves nursing homes, homebound patrons, more than 2700 people through a Talking Book program, and thousands more throughout the state of Maryland thanks to their connection with the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

Closer to home, Cohen maintains several public access computer terminals equipped with the JAWS screen reader and text-enlarging software called Zoomtext. In the Microcomputer Room at the Special Needs Library, four PCs are loaded with various types of software focusing on literacy skills and adaptive technology. They’re also networked to a screen reader, Braille printer, and an optical scanner, which reads printed text aloud.

“Someone once told me, ‘It’s not the deafness that should be the barrier, it’s what you make of it! It’s how you apply yourself,'” she writes. “How very true! My deafness only affected my job in very small ways. However, whatever small obstacles I faced, they were easily remedied with simple adaptations, accommodations, or gentle education and awareness.”

Sounds like that’s what she’s doing for her patrons.