Book Promo: Finding Zoe: A Deaf Woman’s Story of Identity, Love, and Adoption

How Adoption’s Veil Of Secrecy
Is Being Lifted

New Normal Is Open Adoptions, Where Birth Parents
And Adoptive Parents Meet And Keep In Touch

Sometimes an adopted child grows up wondering about his or her birth parents and family history.

But that’s not the case with open adoptions, where the adoptive parents and their adopted child maintain an ongoing relationship with either one or both of the child’s birth parents.

Such situations, once uncommon, have become the norm for infant adoptions, helping to lift the veil of secrecy that left many adopted children unsure of their origins.

Brandi Rarus, who adopted her daughter, Zoe, as an infant in 2004, says she knew almost right away that she wanted to keep the lines of communication open with the birth parents.

“I could see how much Zoe’s birth mother, Jess Urban, loved her and decided that she could always be part of her life,” says Rarus, co-author with Gail Harris of the book “Finding Zoe: A Deaf Woman’s Story of Identity, Love and Adoption” (

Zoe’s was both an open adoption and a special-needs adoption, another cause Rarus is passionate about. Zoe is deaf. So is Rarus, who lost her hearing at age 6 after contracting spinal meningitis, and Rarus’ husband, Tim, who was deaf at birth.

“Zoe’s adoption into a deaf family that uses American Sign Language was so important because she was given exposure to language that she may have been denied otherwise by a family that did not know sign language,” Rarus says.

Originally, another couple adopted Zoe. But as the hearing problem Zoe had at birth grew worse, the couple realized they could not provide Zoe the home she needed, setting the stage for the Rarus family to enter the picture.

“After meeting Brandi and Tim, I just knew in my heart they were the right parents for my daughter,” says Jess Urban, who became pregnant with Zoe when she was an unwed 17-year-old.

Decades ago, nearly all adoptions were closed, with no contact between birth and adoptive parents. That has changed. Here are a few facts about open adoption:

•  The statistics. Only about 5 percent of infant adoptions in the U.S. take place without some sort of ongoing relationship between birth parents and adoptive families, according to a 2012 study by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. About 55 percent are fully open, with ongoing contact that includes the child, and 40 percent are “mediated,” where pictures and letters are exchanged, but there is no direct contact.

•  The advantages.  Proponents say open adoptions give children a deeper understanding of who they are and where they came from; an explanation about why they were placed for adoption; and the opportunity to have a relationship with the birth family. The child also will have no need to search for or wonder about the birth parents.

•  The prevalence. Adoptions, open or otherwise, are common enough that the majority of Americans have a personal connection to them in some way. Another Donaldson Adoption Institute survey once revealed that 60 percent of Americans either know someone who is adopted, have adopted a child themselves or have put a child up for adoption.

“I realize that having an open adoption of this kind may not be right for other adoptive families, but it is right for ours,” Rarus says. “When I see Zoe embracing who she is and where she came from in such a beautiful way, I see my own self in her and know even more that she is truly my daughter.”

Zoe even attended her birth mother’s wedding when she was 8, serving as a junior bridesmaid. She has visited with her birth father, BJ Briggs, who to this day has photos of Zoe on his refrigerator.

Briggs, who was 22 when Jess Urban became pregnant, had been reluctant to place his daughter up for adoption. He wanted to be involved in raising her. He acknowledges he was upset when the adoption center mailed him photos of Zoe and her new family and he realized the first adoption didn’t work out and a new set of parents he knew nothing about had adopted his daughter.

Like Urban, Briggs came to accept that Brandi and Tim Rarus and their three biological sons were the perfect family for Zoe, and allowing her to be adopted had been the right decision.

“Zoe helped me to realize that if you’re going to make a decision, then make it,” Briggs says. “And if it comes from inside of you, and you feel that it’s right, it’s going to be pretty darn close to being right.”

At just a few months old, Zoe was gradually losing her hearing. Her adoptive parents loved her—yet agonized—feeling they couldn’t handle raising a Deaf child. Would Zoe go back into the welfare system and spend her childhood hoping to find parents willing to adopt her? Or, would she be the long-sought answer to a mother’s prayers?

About Brandi Rarus

Brandi Rarus ( is co-author with Gail Harris of the book “Finding Zoe: A Deaf Woman’s Story of Identity, Love and Adoption.” Rarus, who lost her hearing at age 6, has traveled the country speaking out for deaf children and building awareness of what it means to be deaf. She was Miss Deaf America in 1988. She and her husband live in Austin, Texas, with their three sons and adopted daughter.

Finding Zoe: A Deaf Woman’s Story of Identity, Love and Adoption & the ADA

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
Turns Twenty-Five Sunday, July 26
Former Miss Deaf America Says Act Helped Tear Down Barriers

The day the Americans With Disabilities Act passed in 1990, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin delivered a speech from the Senate floor in a way most of his colleagues didn’t understand.

Harkin, the bill’s sponsor, used sign language for the benefit of his brother who was deaf and had taught Harkin this lesson: “People should be judged on the basis of their abilities and not on the basis of their disabilities.”

With the country marking the Act’s 25th anniversary, Brandi Rarus, a former Miss Deaf America, remembers how important it was for people with disabilities to make it known they would no longer allow others to set limits on what they could achieve.

“Those of us with disabilities face many barriers,” says Rarus, co-author with Gail Harris of the book “Finding Zoe: A Deaf Woman’s Story of Identity, Love and Adoption.” (

“Some of those are unavoidable. I can’t listen to the radio as I drive to work in the morning. Often, because of communication barriers, I have to work twice as hard as a hearing person. Instead of taking me five minutes to make a doctor’s appointment, it takes me 10.”

But some barriers are avoidable, Rarus says. And that’s why the Americans With Disabilities Act has played such an important role in people’s lives for the last 25 years.

The ADA prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities when it comes to employment issues. The Act also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for a disability unless it causes an “undue hardship.”

Harris, a professional storyteller and Rarus’ co-author, says that although Rarus is deaf, her life struggles are similar to everyone’s.

“We can all relate to finding our place in the world and fitting in, about self-acceptance, about being judged and judging others, and how we must look past all that to fulfill our dreams,” says Harris. (

The U.S. Department of Labor says many concerns about the ADA never materialized. According to the department:

•  Complying isn’t expensive. The majority of workers with disabilities do not need accommodations, and for those who do, the cost is usually minimal. In fact, 57 percent of accommodations cost nothing, according to the Job Accommodation Network, a service from the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.

•  Lawsuits have not flooded the courts. The majority of ADA employment-related disputes are resolved through informal negotiation or mediation. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces the ADA’s employment provisions, investigates the merits of each case and offers alternatives to litigation. The number of ADA employment-related cases represents a tiny percentage of the millions of employers in the U.S.

•  The ADA is rarely misused. If an individual files a complaint under the ADA and does not have a condition that meets its definition of disability, the complaint is dismissed. While claims by people with false or minor conditions may get media attention, the reality is these complaints are usually dismissed.
Rarus, who became deaf at age 6 when she contracted spinal meningitis, was making strides toward success even before the passage of the ADA.

Winning the Miss Deaf America crown in 1988 led to numerous opportunities. She signed the National Anthem at a Chicago Cubs game. She spoke at corporate conferences and traveled the country speaking out for deaf children and building awareness of what it means to be deaf. She was understudy for Marlee Matlin in the play “Children of a Lesser God.”

Her latest project is “Finding Zoe.” The book Rarus and Harris joined forces to write tells the story of Rarus’ early years as she learned to live with being deaf, but the focal point becomes her effort to adopt Zoe, a deaf infant caught in the foster care system.

Harris, upon collaborating with Rarus on her story, was on a mission to help bring it forth, as everyone is deserving of basic human rights. “People don’t realize what the deaf have gone through,” she says.

 Working with Rarus and the anniversary of the ADA have reminded her of the challenges all people face, whether black or white, deaf or hearing, gay or straight.

“It’s how we deal with them that counts,” Harris says. “Brandi’s courage and tenacity can get us thinking about our own vulnerabilities and how they can make us strong.”

Finding Zoe: A Deaf Woman's Story of Identity, Love, and Adoption  by Brandi Rarus & Gail Harris

Praise for Finding Zoe

“Finding Zoe is a heartwarming story about identity, self-acceptance and love. Brandi beautifully captures the joy of finally fitting in, feeling at home, and finding yourself.”


“The journey in Finding Zoe is captivating and inspirational, and above all, a story about doing what is right for our children, as well as ourselves, no matter how difficult….Finding Zoe is a joy to watch unfold.”

About Brandi Rarus and Gail Harris

Brandi Rarus (, who lost her hearing at age 6, has traveled the country speaking out for deaf children and building awareness of what it means to be deaf. She was Miss Deaf America in 1988. She and her husband live in Austin, Texas, with their three sons and adopted daughter.

Gail Harris ( is an award-winning writer and teacher of the intuitive process who also adopted a child. In addition to co-writing “Finding Zoe,” she is the author of “Your Heart Knows the Answer.” She lives with her husband and son in Framingham, Mass.