Karen Kozlowski Graham, A.M. 1982

Karen Kozlowski Graham Management Consulting, Psychotherapist and Leadership Consultant in Private Practice
Co-founder and CEO of SignOn: A Sign Language Interpreting Resources
Elizabeth Butler Award 1992

Karen Graham

It's all about the mindset and being able to walk into a situation and saying that this could be better," says Karen Kozlowski Graham about her life's work for the hearing impaired, the abused, orphans from the former Soviet Union. Co-founder and CEO of SignOn: A Sign Language Interpreting Resource, she is also a transition consultant, leadership coach and psychotherapist at Karen Kozlowski Graham, LCSW. "The challenges were all around me, and I acted on what I learned at SSA, which was to apply critical thinking to every situation; to look at every situation in different ways and not judge. That is what I still do.”

Ms. Graham, who is hearing impaired, has been an advocate for the deaf and disabled for more than 30 years. She stepped in to create services where there were none for many of her constituents. “When I worked with Thresholds-Bridge, there really were no services for deaf people with mental health problems, and I helped design and implement comprehensive programs and services in the important areas of supervision, evaluation, needs assessment, and advocacy. In addition, we went into every institution in the State of Illinois to identify deaf people who had been misclassified as mentally ill, and to have them released to Thresholds-Bridge to get them back into society. I also advocated for mentally ill deaf people by establishing a psychiatric rehabilitation center for deaf people,” Ms. Graham says with a touch of pride.

Ms. Graham’s efforts have gained national recognition. In 1992, SSA named her the recipient of the first Elizabeth Butler Award, which was established to recognize graduates who have demonstrated a strong commitment to social change as well as leadership and creativity in non-traditional, or innovative approaches to social work practice. Her endeavors on behalf of mentally ill deaf people have won high praise, and an award from the American Psychiatric Association.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in communicative disorders from Northwestern University, Ms. Graham wanted to help the hearing impaired, and became a sign language interpreter for a social worker in the public school system. “I wanted to do more than teach,” she notes, “and decided that a social work degree was in my future. I wanted to go to SSA and only applied there. Fortunately, they accepted my application. It was a wonderful experience made so by such excellent teachers as Bill Pollak (William Pollak, Ph.D.) and Jeanne Marsh (Jeanne C. Marsh, Ph.D.). I thought I was never going to learn it all, but they were so gentle and so good that I made it.”

In 1997, in Seattle, Washington, Ms. Graham became a co-founder of a shared group practice named SignOn: A Sign Language Interpreting Resource to benefit both the deaf community and independent interpreters. Until SignOn, there were no coordinated services matching interpreters with the deaf. “It was a frustrating situation, with the isolation and inefficiencies shared by independent interpreters and deaf people. Deaf customers were forced to call numerous interpreters and then sit and wait for responses to see if one was available,” she remembers. Today, this nationally-recognized company uses video teleconferencing technologies to provide communication access for the deaf. “This has been a labor of love that has grown from a local endeavor to a national effort, with the major call center in Seattle, and services across the country,” states Ms. Graham, who has since moved back to the Chicago area. 

In addition to her work on behalf of the hearing impaired, she is also involved in supporting families who have adopted children from the former Soviet Union. She founded and served as president of a state chapter support group, and currently serves on the board of an agency working with children in the Caucasus. She and her husband have adopted two children from the region, and notes that, “This is another labor of love as we work and advocate on behalf of these children, to provide humanitarian aid, and see to their special needs.”

Reflecting on her many contributions and accomplishments, Ms. Graham says “SSA showed me the way, and I took that knowledge and went to work. New technologies will help make future efforts even better.”

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