Talking Hands:Insights From Clark’s Deaf Community

American Sign Language teacher Becky Engel signs during an interview at Clark college on Oct. 20, 2017.
(Andy Bao/The Independent)

Imagine the hardships you would face if you couldn’t distinguish words from a voice. Imagine if time after time you heard a soup of garbled tones though all you wanted was to understand the person speaking to you.

According to student Aspen Aman, who transferred to Clark this year to be close to family, that’s what it’s like to be Deaf.>
Including Aman, there are around 10 students at Clark who rely on interpreters to understand their teachers, according to Shannon Alicea, Clark’s interpreter coordinator.

Aman, who is beginning her first year here from Eastern Washington University, said she experiences mild hearing loss which causes difficulties in loud environments like classrooms.

Both her father and older brother are hard of hearing, so Aman’s parents were able to suspect her hearing loss a few days after she was born.

Aman said people tell her she’s crazy for her opinion about her experience as a hearing impaired student. “I think it’s a blessing because it makes you who you are,” she said. “It makes you unique and gives you so many different perspectives on how things are handled.”

Aman, who is majoring in athletic training, learned a different form of signing called ‘sign exact english,’ from her father and Deaf preschool teacher. She said transitioning to ASL in highschool was difficult for her.

In 5th grade, Aman couldn’t access interpreters for legal reasons. She said her grades suffered as a result.

“Not having an interpreter, I got lost a lot of the times … it’s a very loud environment, and I can’t hear in a loud environment,” she said.

Aman said when the Deaf have friction with the hearing world, it’s normally due to misunderstanding, but sometimes it’s less innocent.

She said most the stares she gets for signing are in pure interest, but that she’s been treated poorly before.
“Some people do speak to me like I’m five years old and I don’t understand them, but I let that slide,” Aman said. “I’m just as human as you are, the only things that don’t work are my ears.”

Biology professor and former instructor at the Washington State School for the Deaf in Vancouver, Steven Clark, said he observes reading difficulties in Deaf students whose language skills orbit around ASL.

“You can almost guarantee that they’ve worked harder to read than you and I have,” Clark said.

ASL is similar to reading as Spanish is to English, just because you know one doesn’t mean you understand the other, Clark said. “I open the book” in English, would translate into “book, open, I” in ASL, he said.

He said students facing hearing impairment are constantly a sentence behind. They’re watching the interpreter, who can only compose sentences after listening to the teacher, Clark explained.

Clark isn’t just a teacher; he’s a parent too.

He adopted Lakisha Reida, who is deaf, when she was 12 years old. Reida attended the State School for the Deaf where half the teachers and all the students are hard of hearing.

In mainstream schools, students who are hard of hearing face isolation more than anything and have a hard time making friends, Clark said. “When you’re blind you lose independence, when you’re Deaf you lose culture,” he said.

However, hard of hearing students are provided with academic support. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires schools to provide students with the resources they need to succeed. For the hard of hearing, this means ASL interpreters.

Alicea, Clark’s interpreter coordinator for the Disabilities Support Services office, said that she and her staff are in charge of assigning interpreters according to students’ class schedules. They also caption videos shown in class and handle requests for event interpreters.

Alicea has been at Clark for just over a year, working with four full-time interpreters — including herself — and 40-45 part time interpreters. “We could use more,” Alicea said, adding that this quarter she is interpreting more than half of the time.

Alicea has her Bachelors in Elementary Education from State University of New York Plattsburgh and her master’s from Gallaudet University in Washington D.C.

She said learning ASL was easy for her; “I never picked up spanish this quickly.” Interpreting came naturally to her too, she said, though she had no idea it would become her career.

Although Alicea said ASL is a well-paying job, easy to learn and “burns into your brain,” the career path is a long one. “You need to know [ASL] culture, their ethical practices, their society,” Alicea said.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted a 42 percent employment leap for ASL interpreters and translators within this decade — a similar growth rate is observable in ASL at Clark.

Newly tenured-track professor Becky Engel is another example of an ASL career.
Engel has taught ASL at Clark for 11 years while staring hearing impairment in the face daily.

Engel, whose hearing began declining at age seven, learned ASL late in life. She said her compassion for students with similar struggles to her own compelled her to teach ASL.

Engel’s classroom is English-free. She is firm on her “voice-off” policy and to compensate for students who don’t understand ASL, she leans heavily on facial expressions, gestures and pictures while still avoiding English.

Engel said she notices far more signing people in Vancouver than anywhere else. It’s large, tightly-knit local Deaf community is because of the proximity to the School for the Deaf, according to Clark.

In her years of experience with hearing impairment, including an 18-month Deaf education program at Western Oregon University, Engel said she learned the power of observation.

“I am very sensitive to body language,” Engel said. “If a student is sick or in a bad mood, I can pick that up, I can see people who are distracted.”

Aman said she notices body language easily too. “Facial expression is something really huge in the Deaf culture … it’s something that we all have to rely on,” she said.

Alecia, who said that Deaf students are not treated equally, encourages others to reach out to individuals who are hard of hearing.

“Not being afraid to ask to be invited into that community is where someone could start,” Alicea said. “I’ve been in the Deaf world for almost 20 years … I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

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