As an FBI lipreader, Sue Thomas broke new ground in Deaf community
Now retired, Thomas runs a ministry to help homeless people
When Sue Thomas lost her hearing as a toddler, she was just beginning to baby talk. And although she’s only heard a few sounds to speak of since then, she became a champion ice skater, learned to play classical piano and, most famously, was hired as the first deaf person to work as an undercover lip-reading specialist for the FBI.
Born May 24, 1950 in Boardman, Ohio, Sue became profoundly deaf at the age of 18 months. Although the doctors weren’t sure why, they now suspect her deafness may have been early signs of multiple sclerosis, which she was officially diagnosed with in 2001. MS is one of many autoimmune disorders that can cause hearing damage.
'I was ridiculed'
Thomas credits the persistence of her parents and God’s saving grace for her life’s successes, despite the constant bullying she endured as a child in school. “Day in and day out, I was ridiculed every time I opened my mouth,” she said in an April 2011 article for Columbia International University (no longer online). “My parents instilled in me that I was created in the image of God and that God never made a mistake. But I questioned that.”
Sue’s deep faith and her appreciation for those who helped her succeed are apparent in a 2010 interview she did with "100 Huntley Street’s" Moira Brown. The program is Canada’s longest running daily television show and tells stories of people who have had life-changing encounters with God.
“God gave me the parents I would need and my friends as well,” she told Brown. “With God’s help and the determination of strong, spirited parents, there really isn’t anything a child can’t do today.”
Although doctors encouraged Sue’s parents to institutionalize her, they refused. Instead, Sue was surrounded by a loving family who introduced her to innovative educators. By sitting in front of a mirror and mimicking the shapes her speech therapist made with her mouth, Sue learned to speak with appropriate pronunciation and inflection. As a result, she reads lips flawlessly and speaks clearly.
Classical pianist and skating champion
Her roller skating instructor skated hand-in-hand with her to the beat of the music until Sue had memorized the routine, then stood on the sidelines and gestured wildly when the music started. As a result, she became the youngest Ohio State freestyle skating champion at the age of 7.
And although she couldn’t hear the music she played on the piano, she could feel its vibrations. Her mother, who loved music, began teaching her to play at age 5. Like most young girls, Sue eventually rebelled, but her mother persisted. “Someday you’re going to thank me for this,” she told her daughter. As a result, Sue learned to play complicated classical pieces on the piano and developed a deep appreciation for the music which she believes lives inside us all.
“I thank God for the time, the persistence she made me sit behind that piano,” Sue said. “The music reflects my mood. Music starts inside first, and then it’s released and you can hear it. Before you can even hear it, it has to be created within. I’m convinced all deaf people have that creation that has been planted from the beginning of time.”
The only deaf child in school
School was difficult for Sue, who was the only deaf child in her school district. “That was tough. They really didn’t know what to do with me and I was passed from class to class sitting in the classroom in silence, not understanding. Sometimes I got the questions, but I never got the answer.”
Yet Sue persevered and, as a result, graduated from Springfield College in Massachusetts with a degree in political science and international affairs in 1976. Afterward, she studied at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and Columbia Graduate School of Bible Study and Missions in Columbia, South Carolina. When she learned the FBI was looking for deaf people in the early 1980s, she decided to apply.
Lipreader for the FBI
“When I heard the FBI was looking for deaf people, I panicked and thought ‘what did we do?” she humorously told Brown. She began working for the FBI as a fingerprint examiner until an agent asked her to interpret a soundless videotape conversation and discovered her lip-reading skills. “I became the FBI’s secret weapon,” she told Brown. “I followed the bad guys around and read their lips. Then I told the good guys what the bad guys were saying. And they even paid me to do it!”
TV show 'Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye' based on her career
Sue resigned from her position in 1983 due to health reasons. In 1990, she published her autobiography-memoir, "Silent Night." The book became the basis for "Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye," a television series starring Deanne Bray, which was loosely based on her adventures at the FBI and ran from 2002-2005 on Pax TV (now Ion Television). During its peak, it was watched by more than 2.5 million viewers in the United States and syndicated in 62 countries internationally. Not only did the series help bring awareness to the lives and abilities of those with physical challenges, it also reflected Sue’s deep faith.
“It had to be,” she explained to Brown. “That’s who I am. I want to be remembered as Sue Thomas, a woman of faith, who had a tremendously deep love for God.”
Her second book, "Staying In The Race," chronicles her journey through life with deafness and MS.
Today Sue lives in Vermont with her hearing/special-skills dog, Katie. She has given keynote addresses to groups such as Future Farmers of America, National Funeral Home Directors, AMWAY Corp as well as student councils, universities, civic groups and medical professionals. Although MS and a bout with COVID slowed her down considerably, she is still very involved in her ministry Operation Silent Night, which gives food, clothing and blankets to the unsheltered homeless in Washington D.C. She is also raising money to build a place of prayer in Vermont.
“It’s taken her so long to speak, now we can’t get her to shut up!” Bill Thomas, Sue’s father, is quoted as saying, tongue in cheek, on her website. To which many would respond, “thank goodness!” For those who are struggling with similar challenges, Sue’s voice — as well as the example she has set in her lifetime — is a blessing and an inspiration.