Advocate for deaf community bridges communication gap

By Dianne Ryder

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The Equal Employment Offices of the McNamara Headquarters Complex tenant agencies hosted a final event to celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness month Oct. 25. Katrina Labouliere, a sign language interpreter, spoke to employees about “Creating a Deaf-Friendly Environment.” 

As the child of two deaf parents, Labouliere has been using American Sign Language her entire life.

“It’s the fourth most-used language in the U.S.,” said Labouliere, also the executive vice president of Birnbaum Interpreting Services. “ASL has its own structure, grammatical order, syntax — everything.”

“You guys are fortunate to have an organization with a lot of deaf individuals,” she said. “And that is really where you learn your deaf culture.” 

Labouliere said her goal is to bridge the gap between the hearing and deaf communities. She explained that the majority of deaf people do not consider themselves to have a disability. 

“A lot of deaf individuals are happy with where they are; they love their culture and their community,” she said, noting that many deaf people would not choose to become hearing even if it were possible. 

She talked about her parents’ differing opinions on whether they wished they could hear. Her father didn’t consider deafness a problem, but her mother would have chosen for Labouliere to hear, to have an easier life.  

“My parents were older, and the struggle was real for accommodation services for them,” she said. “If anyone has children, you know you want them to have it easier than you had it … That’s what parents do.”

Labouliere presented medical and cultural perspectives as well as myths and facts about the deaf community. 

She also spoke about cultural differences between hearing and deaf communities, including the importance of eye contact while speaking and of getting a deaf person’s attention before speaking to them, with a tap on the shoulder or flip of a light switch. Labouliere also said hearing individuals should not address an interpreter instead of the deaf person nor assume the interpreter is his or her caretaker. 

She explained that many in the deaf community want to engage in full conversations instead of a mere exchanges of pleasantries.
 
“So if you have a new deaf colleague, and they start asking a lot of questions, don’t be offended,” she said. “It’s not rude in deaf culture.”

Labouliere had hearing volunteers take part in a “gesture game” to demonstrate the challenges of using body language but not ASL to communicate a sentence to the audience. 

“Let’s address the elephant in the room,” she said. “There are so many things you can communicate without knowing sign language.”

The two volunteers knew sign language and were visibly frustrated when they had to rely on other physical gestures or charade-like tactics to communicate the sentences, “Where is the meeting?” and “How old are your children?” 

The volunteers agreed it was awkward. Labouliere said sign language interpreters do not sign the speaker’s words verbatim. But even so, interpreting is mentally taxing, and so when interpreting for long periods they take shifts.

She encouraged those in the hearing community who aren’t well-versed in ASL to get over any awkwardness in talking to deaf people.

“The deaf community is happy you made an effort,” she said. “They notice when people don’t make eye contact and pretend they didn’t see them there, because it’s too awkward.”

Labouliere said often, deaf people may prefer the term “deaf” over “hearing impaired.” They may also prefer to use sign language over reading lips. It’s not a “one size fits all” situation.

“When in doubt, ask,” she said. “That’s not awkward, either. It’s ok to ask, ‘What are your communication preferences?’” 

Labouliere praised the HQC organizations for offering an ASL instruction course to its employees. 

“I encourage you all to learn how to spell your name and introduce yourself to a deaf individual who works with you that you’ve never met before,” she said. “We talk about diversity and inclusiveness; it all starts here, right?”

A question-and-answer session followed the presentation, and Defense Logistics Agency EEO Director Ferdinand LeCompte presented Labouliere a certificate of appreciation.