Transcending the Spoken Word

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 co-workers.

In October 2016, the DLA Equal Employment Opportunity Office began free on-site ASL classes for 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.

Schaffer said she used to refer employees to colleges or meetup 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.

Janice Sypolt was one of the employees who inquired about ASL classes.

“I really wanted to take an ASL class for a personal reason. One of my very good friends has a stepson [with] spina bifida, and he’s also deaf,” said Sypolt, a logistics management specialist in DLA Logistics Operations.

Sypolt said the son, Zachary, has an extremely positive outlook, despite all his medical challenges.

“The last time I went to visit him, he flat out asked me, ‘Why can’t you speak to me in my language?’ And that cut me straight to the heart,” Sypolt said.

She promised him the next time she saw him, she would be able to sign to him, even if she wasn’t fluent in ASL.

When Sypolt heard about the lunchtime ASL classes that EEO was going to host, she signed up.

“I certainly expected to learn the letters, numbers — the basics,” she said. “I knew nothing, so they had to lay the groundwork.”

The course’s construction focuses on work-related terms and phrases, because the goal is to increase communication between hearing and deaf employees in the workplace.

“From there, hopefully, you can forge the relationship with your co-worker, practice and learn more signs,” Sypolt said.

One thing Sypolt said she learned through the video presentations is that interpretation isn’t word for word. Whether she’s observing interpreters at her church or during DLA programs, she said she’s gained a new appreciation for interpretation, though she can’t always match up the words to the interpreter’s motions.

“A lot of times, they’ll project the idea — not the exact words,” she said. “It’s just a beautiful language.”

The next time Sypolt had an opportunity to video chat with Zachary, she greeted him and signed her name in ASL. Zachary signed something to his stepfather that Sypolt couldn’t understand. When her friend translated what Zachary said, he told her he had to explain why she was signing her name, because Zachary already knew it!

“That was all I had learned at that point,” Sypolt chuckled. “It was just kind of funny.”

Sypolt would still like to take a formal ASL class and she said there had been discussion about DLA EEO providing a more advanced course.

“But there were so many people on the waiting list for Level I, they need to continue at [that level] and I get that,” she said. “I’m more than willing to go out into the community and just keep going because if I don’t use it, I will forget it.”

Sypolt said that although she doesn’t have any deaf co-workers in her immediate work area, she knows that could change.

She also said she would highly recommend the ASL course to her co-workers.

“Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but any language is hard,” she said. “When I lived in a foreign country, it was always appreciated when I tried to make the effort to speak the language, and I think the same thing applies to ASL.”

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

Visual information specialist Angela Shannon served as one of the ASL instructors in the initial course.

Shannon was 3 years old when she was diagnosed with spinal meningitis and lost her hearing.

“In 1965, Rubella and spinal meningitis were listed [among] the worldwide epidemics that cause deafness,” she said. 

She said she began to use ASL at a very early age.

“I grew up at a deaf residence institution, South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind, and attended Gallaudet University , so my native language is ASL,” she said. “As a visual information specialist at DLA, I prefer to use ASL interpreters to communicate, to prevent any misunderstanding and to provide the best visual products to DLA’s [customers].”

Shannon has also taught several ASL courses throughout her nearly 30-year federal career at DLA.

“[During the] last few years, I have tapped into interpreting for deaf/blind at conferences,” she said. “It’s been pretty mind-blowing.” 

Shannon said once students get past the initial awkwardness, the learning process is eye-opening, for her as well as for the students.

“ASL changes the way one would think as opposed to other spoken languages; it’s almost as if your mind goes into a 3- or 4-dimenision virtual reality, just using your hands,” she said. “Unfortunately, some of us forget some signs as soon as the class is over with. Finding someone to talk to in ASL is the most important [part] in keeping up with your signing skills.”

Sypolt reinforced this advice. For refresher training, she often refers to the book she was given during the class and watches online videos used in the class to demonstrate signing techniques.

“Because you want to engage in water cooler conversation; you don’t want to talk work all the time,” she said. “You’d like to be able to say something like, ‘Hey, how was your weekend?’”

Shannon said she would definitely consider teaching another course, and said the ASL class is a great way to network.

“It’s a smart investment, and I have met amazing people from all walks of life. It’s a beautiful thing,” she said.

Shannon said she appreciates the EEO interpreters and fellow instructors Jarvis Beaver and Helen Yu, “who led the ASL class with dignity and pride.”

She relayed a story she had heard about a deaf man in Haiti who lost his way during the 2016 hurricane.

“He was hurt, but he managed to walk for what seemed like miles until he found a group [providing] humanitarian support,” she said. “He couldn’t believe his luck, because one of them was able to communicate with him in ASL.”

When Shannon asked if he knew who the members of the group were, the man informed her they were DLA employees.

“I realized ASL breaks down communication barriers on many different levels at DLA — on the job, in emergencies and safety, in team building, [in service and] in resiliency — not only here at home, but across the globe,” she said.   

Shannon said she looks forward to hearing more inspiring stories from the ASL sessions.

“The deaf community is a tight, close-knit family, and sharing information is sacred,” she said. “When we can communicate efficiently with each other in more than one way, DLA thrives.”