Agency employees learn to value ‘sound of silence’

By Dianne Ryder

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Improving communication among the workforce has long been a goal of the Defense Logistics Agency, and employees over the years have asked for instruction in American Sign Language to help them communicate with their deaf and hard-of-hearing coworkers.

Now their wish has become reality, as the DLA Equal Employment Opportunity Office began offering free on-site classes in October, to employees at the McNamara Headquarters Complex.

“For years, people had inquired about it,” said Vanessa Schaffer, one of four sign language interpreters in DLA’s EEO office.

She said she used to refer employees to colleges or meet up groups that taught ASL. “But a lot of those programs you have to pay for, and that has been a deterrent for people,” she said.

When Schaffer advertised the class, she said the response was overwhelming. “We had a limit of 35people and had to wait list people,” she said. “I still have a wait list of 50-60 people because within three days, the class was full.”

The classes began in October, which is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. The lunchtime sessions have taken place nearly every week through Dec. 29.

Given the level of interest, Schaffer said the EEO office hopes to convene another course in February, but it will depend on many factors, including availability of space and instructors. 

Jarvis Beaver, a business analyst in DLA Energy, was the class’s primary instructor for the fall course.

“Immediately, I thought about him because he’s very charismatic and he has a very clear signing style,” Schaffer said. “He had never taught before, but he was more than willing.”

One of the last ASL sessions dealt with the importance of facial expressions, in addition to proper hand motions and movements.

“Since there’s no speech, facial expressions are very important in sign language,” Beaver said. “There’s no verbal mouth movements; it’s all shown on the face, your eyebrows moving up and down, showing your emotions through your body language.”

Beaver illustrated these points by showing the students videos. During one, a deaf person is shown signing without showing any emotion or change in facial expression.

“You’re not looking at the person’s lips; you’re looking at the person’s facial expression,” Beaver said. “Having a blank face is not acceptable. You need to have facial expressions while you’re signing.”

Helen Yu, a supply management specialist in the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, was another instructor. She taught ASL to DTRA employees and developed a curriculum, which Schaffer said the DLA instructors borrowed from.

“It’s new for us, so we don’t really have a set plan,” Schaffer said. “I want to know what people want to learn.”

By midway in the course, instructors have already covered what Schaffer calls the basics: vocabulary, simple sentence structures and the ability to exchange pleasantries.

“People will raise their hands and just ask, ‘How do you say this? How do you say that?’ And I like that, too; we’re very flexible,” she said.

A few of the students supervise deaf employees, Schaffer said. She applauds their efforts, because they see the class as an opportunity to communicate without having to rely on electronic communications or interpreters.

“The supervisors have made it a point to come to every class and learn and really use the language because they have a [deaf] employee working directly for them,” she said. “I think that’s so great and has to mean a lot to the employee. It speaks volumes about the supervisors.”

Schaffer said DLA does a great job of hiring a number of deaf individuals, and that provides a sense of community. But a lot of hearing employees who have daily interactions with their deaf counterparts feel awkward because they’re unsure how to communicate with them, she said.

“To already feel isolated because you’re the only deaf person in your organization [is bad enough], but then to have people ignore you or run away because they’re too afraid to even try to communicate could make them feel like they don’t even want to work in that environment,” she said.

Schaffer explained that while some deaf people talk or make an effort to mouth words, there are preferred modes of communication and they are as individual as the people themselves. “As with everything in life, it’s just preference — how you grew up, where you grew up, how old you were when you lost your hearing or whether you were born deaf,” she said.

 “We need to keep this interesting so people keep coming back and keep wanting to learn. I hope we’ve done that,” she said. “Some weeks, it’s been a lot of vocabulary being thrown at them and a lot of review, which can be boring and repetitive, but that’s how you learn.”

She said EEO plans to collect feedback and ask what students liked, didn’t like and would still like to learn.

“That can only help us make it a better program in the future,” she said.