Musician finds light in the dark through d/Deaf culture education at RCBC
Monday, Apr 03, 2023

As a seasoned pianist and music educator, the very last thing Kristy Whilden expected was to lose her hearing. Whilden was a music and piano teacher for ten years before receiving a shocking prognosis in 2014, which informed her that she was beginning to develop progressive sensorineural hearing loss.

Since piano had been her primary outlet for self-expression for the majority of her life, the musician spiraled into fear that she was about to lose her love and outlet in music forever. 

“I knew I had to act,” she said. Whilden found a college where she could prepare herself for this major life changing event by learning more about Deaf Culture and American Sign Language. Her desolation soon turned to hope when she found and enrolled in Rowan College at Burlington County’s American Deaf Culture course, taught by Celeste Bonfanti.

“She changed my world,” Whilden explained of the Deaf Culture professor. “She introduced me to this beautiful community, the d/Deaf community, and she helped me to realize that my life wasn’t over.” From that point on, Whilden was empowered to pursue an education in American Sign Language as well, and enrolled in a course at the college taught by Elias Papazis. “He made me realize that I wasn’t alone, and that there was this beautiful new language that he was willing to teach me.”

While Whilden was working hard to complete a degree in American Deaf Studies and American Sign Language, her young daughter, Hailey, feared losing her ability to speak with her mother. While Professor Papazis took Kristy under his wing, Hailey Whilden found solace of her own when the instructor enabled her to sit in on American Sign Language lessons alongside her mother. At the age of 12, Hailey was unsure she could learn a new language to communicate with her mom, but was empowered and welcomed by Papazis to learn the language and maintain her ability to connect and communicate with her mother. “It was really scary at first… but at RCBC, everyone was so welcoming.” 

Even at a young age, the environment at the college enabled Hailey to begin taking steps to learn more about d/Deaf culture, and she eventually grew up to attend Rowan College at Burlington County as a full-time student. Last spring, she graduated with the same degree as her mother had in 2017 and is now enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program at Rowan University. 

Not only have Kristy and Hailey Whilden pursued higher education in d/Deaf studies and culture, but both have worked to establish a theater in which d/Deaf inclusivity is valued at the forefront of performance. As a lifelong proponent of the arts, Kristy was disappointed to learn that she may never be able to enjoy a play or musical again. 

Soon after receiving hearing aids, Whilden attended a theater show where the interpreter was off to the side and not clearly visible. This event sparked frustration in that she paid the same price for a ticket as everyone around her, but was not able to enjoy the performance due to the disregard of the needs of the d/Deaf community. 

This inspired the music teacher to begin a program which all people could enjoy. Originally, she wanted to start a signed choral performance, but with input from her daughter Hailey, the two realized the one thing they missed the most was being able to see plays and musicals together. Thus, the idea for Hands Up Silent Theater, an American Sign Language performance company, was born.

“The company operates like a training facility to teach people a new language through something fun like theater,” Whilden explained. Hands Up prepares young pupils to pursue a variety of careers in theater, performance and interpreting, and the educator has a number of strong pupils entering the workforce and representing the mission of the business. 

After a period of grief and depression while losing the ability to perform music in 2014, Whilden refused to give up hope. In losing her outlet through music, she pursued reading and writing instead, journaling about her thoughts and experiences as a cathartic way to cope with this loss. This is what brought her to her current pursuit of a master’s degree in Creative Writing, and what inspired her to contribute to the International Best Selling collaborative novel, “Dear Younger Self.” Her tale is one of great strife and challenge, but also immense hope for the future.

For Kristy and her daughter Hailey, the college housed a bright turning point in a sea of darkness. With the guidance and support of Professor Elias Papazis, and their newfound optimism for learning American Sign Language, the two found the strength to move forward at RCBC.

As far as Hands Up Silent Theater is concerned, the pair are far from finished. In late April, the company will be putting on a signed and voiced performance of Matilda, where both the d/Deaf and hearing communities can come together and enjoy the show as one audience. The Whildens’ mission is ultimately to bring people together to celebrate art, and as Kristy would advise anyone struggling with hearing loss, “don’t give up,” because “you are not alone.”


For more information about Hands Up Silent Theater - or for tickets - visit 

For more information about Kristy Whilden and her best-selling book, visit