Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. is one of the nation’s leading educators of deaf students. In September, we looked at how these students are excelling in a hearing world. We were joined by a pair of students who’ve attended the school – including one who interprets concerts by Chance the Rapper and other artists. And Gallaudet president Roberta Cordano explained how the school tailors teaching to serve its hearing-impaired population.
This episode originally aired on September 1, 2017.
Read Krys’ interviews with Gallaudet University President Roberta Cordano and former students Matthew Maxey and Krista Dickson:
Matthew Maxey on translating hip-hop music into ASL
The following is a transcript of the conversation between Krys Boyd and Matthew Maxey, which aired on Sept. 1, 2017. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Krys Boyd: Matthew, welcome to “Think.”
Matthew Maxey: Thank you. Good to be here.
Krys Boyd: How is translating music in ASL different from translating a conversation?
Matthew Maxey: Well, with music you have to feel it more. Just like you have different volume and the way you talk during a conversation, the same concept applies for when you’re interpreting music. If it’s a laid-back vibe, that’s how you interpret it. If it’s more like high-energy, turnt up, it shows that more in the interpretation, to where it becomes more animated and more descriptive.
Krys Boyd: You were into hip-hop before you ever learned to sign, but you have a significant hearing loss yourself. How did you connect with music when you couldn’t always hear it clearly?
Matthew Maxey: Well, my family always had a strong musical background. Both of my parents were always listening to music. Just being around music, I started picking up on it, but it wasn’t until I discovered Lit and the album booklets. Once I discovered that, that started helping me to connect more because I could finally understand what they were talking about in the song. So I could relate more and sing along as well.
Krys Boyd: So you arrived at Gallaudet University, the school for the deaf in Washington D.C., when you weren’t fluent yet in ASL. I can’t imagine how hard it was if your first challenge in college was to learn this brand-new language that every class would be taught in. How would you describe those early months before you were fluent in ASL?
Matthew Maxey: A culture shock. Honestly, it was just very overwhelming, but it was a welcome challenge as well. When I first got there, there was a protest. And it’s ironic because the protest was against having a hearing president that wasn’t deaf. So for me going there and that’s the first semester and that’s the first thing I witnessed from deaf culture, is already just kind of a whirlpool. From there, it was either sink or swim. Once I got more involved with sign language, once I started learning more, the motivation and ambition and desire to learn just kind of took over from there — especially once music got involved.
Krys Boyd: So you have to be really good at signing if you’re going to sign in hip-hop, right?
Matthew Maxey: Yes, ma’am because it’s so much being said so fast that if you don’t know what to sign, your hands will become like a tongue twister — a hand twister in a way — trying to keep up.
Krys Boyd: Can you teach anybody who’s bilingual in English and ASL to translate hip-hop, or is this a skill that maybe some people are just naturally gifted at?
Matthew Maxey: I think that would go half and half, actually. Some people can be taught, but with music, so much of it is just feeling it, and you know, everybody can sing. But just because everybody can sing, doesn’t mean that everybody will like your singing. And the same concept applies to interpreting hip-hop. You may can do it, but I may not just vibe with you. While some people may be “Hmm, OK,” but I understand what they’re saying, so I can vibe with them more. It always varies. Sometimes it can be taught. It’s best when it’s natural.
Krys Boyd: So there must be artists that you really connect with, some better than others.
Matthew Maxey: Yes, ma’am.
Krys Boyd: All right. Who are your favorites? Besides Chance the Rapper that you’re touring with.
Matthew Maxey: Well, I’ve always had an attachment to listening to Outcast, DMX, Scarface, T.I. I have a big southern influence in what I listen to. A lot of the beats that you hear in the southern songs, the live storytelling that you get when you listen to southern hip-hop,that drew me in because I always wanted to translate the stories into sign language.
Krys Boyd: There’s a lot of slang used in hip-hop. Sometimes artists are creating their own new terms and words. What do you do for your audience if those slang terms don’t exist yet in ASL?
Matthew Maxey: That’s when you start to interpret the meaning of the words. You can’t exactly sign the words. You can’t exactly finger-spell the words out because, like you said, a lot of the times they’re new so most people already don’t know the meaning of it. And a lot of the times with the words I interpret, I move my mouth a lot. If I can’t say the word, or if the word is not common, I will mouth the word as well as what I think it means. That way the audience or the viewer, whoever is watching, takes it in. They see me mouth the word, but they see the sign that I applied for it. For concepts like “honey,” it would be like a sweetie or a girl. But because there’s not really a sign for it, I wouldn’t exactly be like “honey” — the actual sign for honey. I would show more of a beautiful girl for honey, so that way it becomes more clear.
Krys Boyd: OK, is there already an ASL sign for every swear word in English?
Matthew Maxey: If not, close enough.
Krys Boyd: So everybody could figure those out, is that right?
Matthew Maxey: Yes, ma’am. I think swear words are probably the easiest ones to pick up on because you kind of already generally do it. It’s just now you’re making your hands fit exactly what you want to say so there’s no miscommunication.
Krys Boyd: How did you get the idea to start making videos and putting them up on YouTube, just for friends and people who knew you?
Matthew Maxey: Actually, one friend of mine, he wanted to do a music video, a guy there at the university and a student I had. And he did one and he told me to sign a song. I chose an old Lil’ Jon from “Crunk Juice.” But I chose one of those songs from that album and I put it up on YouTube. And from there, it actually had like 3,000 views in the first month. To me, that was a lot. I’m thinking, “Wow, OK, 3,000 people watching this, liking this. Let me keep going and see what happens from there.”
Krys Boyd: So how much control do you want to have over how the videos that you sign are produced? Are you really interested in what’s in the background and how the camera works and all that?
Matthew Maxey: In all honesty, I never have been interested in it. I’ve always been more of “It’s in the moment.” I honestly feel like the best translation, the best expression, the best interpretation, they’re on the spot. You can’t predict it. You can’t prepare for it. A lot of times if we’re just hanging out with a group of friends, and we’re all jamming along, and a song comes on that I know how to interpret, at that moment I may be like “Get a camera; you need to record this.” But to actually set up the music video, my interest is not so much into that. My fellow interpreter Kelly, she’s more [into] producing, and she’s more motivated toward getting me to do music videos, and it becomes a win-win.
Krys Boyd: People might assume that you sent a bunch of your videos to Chance the Rapper and said, “Hey! Do you need an ASL interpreter?” But, in fact, he found you.
Matthew Maxey: I did not put forth any effort in trying to work with Chance the Rapper. He just honestly saw me the first time I hopped up on stage at Bonnaroo. And to hear that he wanted to meet after that first time experience, that was unprepared for, unpredicted. None of it I could’ve told you was going to happen.
Krys Boyd: So what happened at Bonnaroo, you were just moved in the moment and you jumped up and started interpreting in ASL?
Matthew Maxey: No. Actually, again referring back to my co-worker Kelly, she had a plus one to bring somebody extra to the festival, so she chose to bring me. And once they found out that I was coming, the access department at Bonnaroo wanted to give me flexibility to interpret whichever song I wanted to. So I’m thinking, “OK, that’s great! I can do everything that I like and relate to, and I know I can sign it in a good way.” And that helped me to adjust to the concert and festival sound and everything on the fly, but with more ease then just going up there and not knowing any of the songs because I’m still deaf. That would make it harder to interpret. But one song, it was D.R.A.M. and he got up on stage. He was the first interpreter that we got up for, and Chance just happened to be backstage and he saw the performance. The next night, we met him after his set, and he told us he had saw us the day before and saw the energy. He could feel the music and had taught his daughter sometimes as well. So from there he always had an interest in it, and once he saw how we were interpreting, that’s when the offer to join him on tour happened, and then everything has just been fireworks since then.
Krys Boyd: Wow. Tell me a little bit about how you rehearse for a concert.
Matthew Maxey: Honestly, there’s no rehearsal. We have to practice on our own because when we joined, they were already finishing up the tour. So we had to do basically catch up big time just to be able to be on par with the rest of them. And our own rehearsal is more of we have to memorize the song lyrics, we have to memorize the song concept that we’re going to use, we have to memorize and practice how to interpret as well as go through the concerts themselves to see how Chance performed the songs. It’s always different live compared to on Apple Music or on a CD.
Krys Boyd: You also write hip-hop lyrics. Can you talk about some of the things that you like to write songs about?
Matthew Maxey: Honestly, when writing hip-hop lyrics, again it just becomes what’s happening in the world. I like to put things in perspective. For me, the more outside-the-box the lyrics can be, the more interested I am in writing the lyrics. Especially with the deaf influence, I know if I can make a creative rhyme about being deaf and hard-of-hearing to kind of boost awareness, but at the same time show people that there are different types of deaf people that they may not have been exposed to before. Those are the types of lyrics that I go for as well as the storytelling aspect that is obviously influenced from DMX, Scarface, all of those types. I try to just keep going to where it talks about school, life, family, friends, everything around you because, you know, life is what you make of it. What you see is in your eyes to project that into artistic poetry, so whether it’s drawing or writing or writing a book or writing lyrics, it’s still how you see it through your eyes. So I try to show it through my eyes the best I can, especially with having a hearing loss because I feel like my perspective would be a little bit different then the norm as well.
Krys Boyd: You have said that there was a time when you felt too deaf for the hearing world, and too hearing for the deaf world. Do you think that that sense of being an outsider has ever helped you as a translator?
Matthew Maxey: I feel like it was motivation to become better as a translator. Why I say that is because, even with speaking to you right now, growing up I was always made fun of for my voice. Even though I could have friends that were hearing, and I didn’t know anything about sign language anyway, it was still that obvious fact that I was different compared to the norm. And then the same concept applies when I went to Gallaudet University because there I’m talking and everybody else is signing. I feel like I don’t fully fit in the way that they do when they’ve been signing all their lives and I’ve been signing maybe two years. Just seeing that different balance, it was just motivation to make sure that I focused on my speech to try to be as clear as possible — but at the same time, improve my sign language to be as clear as possible with my signing as well.
Krys Boyd: Do you still feel like you exist between these two cultures: deaf culture and hearing culture? Or, do you now feel like you fit perfectly in both of them?
Matthew Maxey: I feel like I’m starting to become more accepted in both of them. I feel like what I have been doing and maybe previous impressions of me, were misleading and not quite understood. And I feel like now with everything that “DEAFinitely Dope” has been doing and working with Chance and all the traveling, performances, camps, workshops, I think now people are starting to understand and support more than ever before. With that support, I do feel more a part of both the hearing and deaf world in the process.
Krys Boyd: Matthew, it’s been a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you so much.
Matthew Maxey: Thank you for having me.
Roberta Cordano on deaf education and Gallaudet University
The following is a transcript of the conversation between Krys Boyd and Gallaudet University President Roberta Cordano, which aired on Sept. 1, 2017. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Krys Boyd: President Cordano, welcome to “Think.”
President Roberta Cordano: Well, thank you for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.
Boyd: Gallaudet has a fascinating history. Can you talk a little bit about how the school came into existence?
Cordano: Oh, I’d be more than happy to. Gallaudet actually was founded 153 years ago. The charter was signed by President Abraham Lincoln and by Congress. And this, in fact, was the first time in the history of the world that a government supported the notion that deaf people had the right to a college education and a college degree. You know, at that time there were a number of deaf children who would graduate from high schools. We actually had schools for the deaf back then all over the country and then now, we’re celebrating 200 years of deaf history in the United States. The first deaf school was founded 200 years ago in Connecticut. So for the 153 years we were graduating individuals who had no college future for them, and we realized there were so many bright deaf people with no opportunities to earn a college degree. And so that was the premise by which Gallaudet was established. And it’s been the only time in the history of a world that a government has recognized the rights of deaf people to have access to a college education through sign language. So, we are the only university in the world that does teaching and research and has new discoveries through sign language and English.
Boyd: You are the first deaf woman president of the university?
Cordano: That’s correct.
Boyd: Apart from the symbolism of that role as a role model, which is obviously important, what can a deaf president bring to this job that a hearing president couldn’t?
Cordano: Think of it like the difference between a native speaker of, let’s say, French or Spanish or even Latin — well, Latin’s kind of a dying language — but any other foreign language, and someone who then learns it as a second language. The comparison is fairly similar, in that I bring an inherit understanding of the experiences that the students actually have as well. I was raised as many of them have been raised. I went to a public school, and I was the only deaf student in my class. With that, I progressed through high school without any interpreters back when I was in school, and I got through and coped as best I could. I learned to adapt. I learned to be resilient. I learned things on my own, and I had to be committed as a learner in order to succeed. That came from me internally. I had that internal drive. Many of our students are just like that, and so, I bring the experience that I have to this position. I’m a native user of the language. It’s my good fortune to have had deaf parents who have graduated from Gallaudet, ironically enough. They taught me the value of learning. They taught me the value of education. They’ve appreciated that value from their time here at Gallaudet. So the history of this place and the sense of significance of this university, Gallaudet University, and the lives of the people who live here and form this community is something that I learned about early on, and it is indeed my gift to be here in this position. This is not a job. It’s a calling, and it truly requires an understanding of the significance of this university, and so really, it’s an honor to be called to this position.
Boyd: I read that you have a small percentage of students who come to Gallaudet not yet fluent in ASL. I wonder what it takes to get them up to speed to pursue an education at the university level.
Cordano: I wouldn’t describe it as a small percentage, actually. It used to be, maybe 40 or 50 years ago, 3 percent of the students who came to Gallaudet would be those who don’t know sign language. But now, the numbers are higher. It’s closer to 15 to 20 percent these days, and that number is ever-growing because we’re finding more and more deaf children not having access to sign language. So, the experience of them coming here as a student, many of them have had some exposure to basic signs before they arrive, but when they get here, most of them take a class that’s called Jumpstart. In the Jumpstart program, it’s designed to be a six-week intensive program, and in the last two years, we’ve had about 113 students who’ve taken Jumpstart. All of those students are still here at Gallaudet; one had to leave for health reasons. But that really tells us a lot about how much students are able to just really dive into the experience and immerse themselves into this environment. By six weeks, they become very comfortable with shifting, as they’ve had to, to use visual communication. They’re able to gesture more. They’re able to use signs to express themselves. So it’s really that shift from English into ASL and a visual language environment that this opportunity creates for them. We have a program that we’ve worked with the interpreters on establishing, and this is called Emerging Signers; it’s an emerging signers program. The interpreters that work with these students help the students build the confidence, help them to really feel that they’re understanding the sign language that they’re seeing. Once they get to that point that they’re confident in themselves, the interpreters can take more of a back seat and the students can be more independent in the classroom, but it’s amazing how quickly they pick up the language.
Boyd: So many people who are bilingual or multilingual will talk about the fact that you can say something beautifully in French that you can’t say in Spanish or Chinese, or you can say something in English that doesn’t work in another language. Are there things that you can express in sign language that are harder to get out in English?
Cordano: Yes, there are. The sign that I just used — that’s a perfect example. The sentence in English that would be equivalent to that sign, I’m not exactly sure how to really even describe the experience. The interpreters could perhaps do it for you, but it wouldn’t deliver the same kind of sentiment. So the concept behind that sign really just gives you an example of how you can describe something in ASL. American Sign Language is three-dimensional: You can see the hands and dimensions as they move through space. The signs can grow into a larger space or a smaller, more compressed space. Facial expression can become more animated or less so. All of that together creates a sphere and a feeling and a sense, in which the signs are created within, and it is very, very difficult in order to reduce that three-dimensional sphere into linear, spoken English language. If you look at English, tone is something that I actually can hear, and so the understanding of the translation process to capture that tone that you see in ASL in English words just doesn’t quite find the same equivalence. The meaning can be conveyed, but it’s just not the same. It’s that visual impact and the field that you get by observing and witnessing that. You don’t get the same thing when it’s translated into a linear English text.
Boyd: Will you make the sign quickly one more time so that I can describe it to the people who will listen to this on the radio?
Cordano: I sure will.
Boyd: So, I can’t even put it into words what you did. You sort of brought your hands in front of your face and then you popped them out open again as if to show surprise. Is that accurate?
Cordano: Boy, that’s fascinating the way you chose the words that you did in English to represent that sign. You know, if you were to use those words, I could maybe figure out. It could be possible that I might be able to figure out the word. If I were to translate that into a sentence, I would probably say that was magnificent.
Boyd: That’s wonderful.
Boyd: I know that the campus is being retrofitted in some places according to Deaf Space Design Principles and for people who haven’t heard that, can you explain what it means and what’s changing?
Cordano: Well, at the heart of things, deaf space is intended to really challenge the norms and architecture and design as they design space. Let me just give you an example. If you think about sidewalks, they were designed for two people to walk side by side, and they might be holding hands. You can imagine two people walking down a regular sidewalk, but when you’re signer, you need a bit more space and distance between you and the other person. So, when you’re walking with one another, you have to be angled towards the other person so you can be signing with one another and see what the other person is signing. So, greater distance is required. We recognize that within hallways and sidewalks our passage ways need to be a bit wider to allow for that because often it’s more than two people who are walking together, as many as three or four might be navigating through space, and we all need to be able to have that visible access to sign language. As you increase the number of people, you know four or five, you actually find sometimes people will walk backwards. If there’s a column in the way, you might accidentally run into it, and so we have to make sure that there are passage ways that are clear and open, and you have to be able to see and watch where you are walking. So, it’s kind of funny the way we describe people walking or even driving if you’ve got a group of deaf people doing either. The people in the back are the ones who are watching what’s happening while the people in the front are sort of a part of the conversation and those in the back are doing the backseat driving, if you will, but we don’t have accidents. If I’m walking with a deaf person, I’m always being warned about things that might be in my way and obstacles so I can navigate around them. So, we help one another. Kind of like sheep, we sort of herd one another walking together to ensure everyone gets to the destination safely. The whole idea of deaf space is opening up space in such a way that we can travel freely and comfortably. But what happens is that people who are hearing also find it a bit more relaxing to be in that kind of space. They don’t have that sense of being compressed into a refined area. I often refer to this more as human-centric design because we are using our experiences as deaf people to design spaces that are comfortable for everyone in the world. It helps the whole human experience be a better one.
Boyd: What do you think is the state of K-12 deaf education in this country? Is it where it needs to be?
Cordano: So, can I go back to your question about design first cause there’s one other thing I really wanted to emphasize. When you have a visual language and visual learning is happening, we also have to be very intentional about the design of the space to make sure that it supports and enhances that experience because it’s a very different experience that which you have if you were learning through your ears. You can look down to your paper, people can move about the room very differently when it’s a spoken language. So, I just wanted to acknowledge those differences, and it really enhances our learning in the academic experience here when we create spaces designed for deaf people.
Boyd: OK, now I have another question to follow up on that actually. How do deaf students take notes during lectures?
Cordano: Well, there’s two things with that. One: Often there are pauses that would occur naturally in the pace of a lecture. If the professor wants the students to take notes about something, they might pause so the students have the opportunity to do it. There are ways that you can both glance at your paper and look up at what’s happening so you develop those skills. There are also opportunities where professors might hand out the notes of key parts of their lecture to make sure that they have the attention of the students, so they can absorb the language visually, and they don’t have to compete with their eye gaze being diverted to the writing that might need to happen. For some students, they bring their laptop and they don’t have to look at the screen; they can just type and watch what’s happening, so that’s another alternative. I go everywhere with my iPad and I could watch you now and anyone at all and take notes, or I can kind of look back and forth fairly easily. We’re using more and more technology and, of course, the students naturally adapt to the use of technology these days. I can also just videotape the professor with my iPhone, and if the professor is all right with that. There is a number of different options for managing this, but we adapt to the visual use of our language, and sometimes technology can be an ally for that.
Boyd: I’m showing my age that I think of everyone with a spiral notebook like we did in the ‘80s.
Cordano: Exactly, yeah.
Boyd: All right, to the question of K-12 deaf education, what do you think?
Cordano: Sure. There are pockets of phenomenal educational opportunities for bilingual education, where English and ASL are provided in equal emphasis to our children, and there are a number of excellent teachers who are working with deaf children every single day. I want to make sure that that’s clearly emphasized, that we do have some wonderful things happen on a daily basis in those K-12 settings. I think the largest problem that we’re facing when it comes to deaf children is just the lack of understanding of the biases that have come from research that we have about the brain and how the brain works. Our educational approaches have not yet caught up with and are not really using what we already know in the research we’ve done on the brain about how best to teach deaf children. So first, the deaf baby’s brain as compared to a hearing baby’s brain are biologically equivalent. There is absolutely no difference between the two. So when you expose both of those brains — the deaf brain and the hearing brain — to multiple languages, the child who uses spoken English and the other child who uses a visual language, the languages progress in the exact same ways. But what we found actually is that for hearing children, hearing babies, if you don’t expose them to a visual language, parts of their brain actually cease growing, and the synapses are actually lost as a result. So deaf babies’ brains continue to thrive, in terms of those synapses, because they have visual access to the visual nature of our language. So what’s of concern to us is that we really need to open up our thinking across the country to better understand the benefits that could be had for all children if they learn both English and American Sign Language. You know, the evidence is clear. The brain will thrive when exposed to both, and this could be one of the benefits that would be realized when you work with children as they come into kindergarten. If they have language delays or vocabulary delays, one of the sure ways to address some of those issues are to expose them to both languages. Let me just give you an example. We know that for the brain when a child, let’s say, is having difficulty reading and they’re an English user, if that child is struggling with reading, we often will label them as having a learning disability. Well, what we know is that when we expose a child like that to a visual language, it’s actually easier for them to translate a visual language into English text. What happens is that their reading ability actually increases, and it’s because of the fact that the brain can see the patterns of the visual language, it can use that pattern-making and map it onto the written text in order to reinforce and better understand what they’re seeing. So, the research that we’re doing right here in our brain lab on campus, our visual learning lab here at Gallaudet, and we’ve done this research for the last 12 years. It’s been funded by the National Science Foundation. We’ve actually gotten a National Inspire Award from NIH as well. But the research happening is shattering those notions and those perceptions about brain and language. It used to be that we thought that children really needed to receive language through their ears, auditorily, in order to ensure that they would develop literacy skills, but we’re finding that is not the case. In fact, the brain doesn’t discriminate between the languages — a visual one or a spoken language. It’s people that do the discrimination. The brain is just looking for patterns in whatever way shape or form it can get it, and it gets those patterns maybe through a visual language is exactly the same way it would get those same patterns through a spoken language. So now, if we go back to the K-12 question and what’s the state of education these days there, we absolutely need to take a look at the early years of education, zero to 5, language acquisition for all children in this country. Especially this is true for our deaf, hard-of-hearing and deaf-blind children, we need to really examine what’s good for them and what’s best for them. And when we understand that, we can recognize what’s good for all children and what’s best for all children and really shift the way we think about language in our K-12 programs. We have 23 million people who are over the age of 65 who have hearing losses, and if they were able to maybe not get diagnosed and not get an assistive listening device until later, their social abilities actually decrease. At John Hopkins they’ve done research to show if you have an undiagnosed hearing loss, actually you will get dementia five years earlier than you otherwise would have, and this is for the average person. Well, the natural way to compensate for many of these individuals is to provide them with the options to have some kind of visual communication. So our K-12 systems would benefit greatly if we just gave the language opportunities for all students, so that they could learn throughout a lifetime and be able to use either English or ASL, whichever is most fitting. Just a natural language could be learned from many people and is also enjoyable to use.
Boyd: The last thing I want to ask you. You’re a mother. You have two kids. I assume you’re raising them bilingual. Did they speak in sign together from the moment they began communicating?
Cordano: Well, yeah, they’ve signed. I’ve exposed them to signing from birth. Just simply because as babies develop they can sign actually well before they can begin to vocalize and so by 6 or 7 months, a baby can’t even begin to speak at that point in time; they’re able to use and understand sign language. That’s why baby sign language is so popular in the United States. Even hearing parents want their hearing children to learn sign language. If they want to be able to indicate that their diaper is wet and that’s why they’re upset, then they can actually communicate that need, but babies who can’t communicate that in any way through sign language are unable to do that and end up doing a whole lot more crying, and you try to figure out “Are they hungry? Are they wet? What’s the problem?” And you finally get to the point: “Oh, their diaper’s wet or maybe they’re hungry.” They just need to communicate that they need to eat, and if you don’t know what the issue is, they’re just crying; you go through all the iterations to figure it out. So, if we can teach these babies the sign for it, they can communicate what’s the issue. My spouse is hearing and she speaks and signs, but I think just the beauty of being able to express yourself in sign language as my boys have been able to do is something that is just so beautiful and I think there’s an appreciation of that, and I don’t want to speak for them, but that would be my perception of their experience.
Boyd: Thank you so much. This has been wonderful.
Cordano: Sure and thank you, thank you very much.
Krista Dickson on growing up deaf
The following is a transcript of the conversation between Krys Boyd and Krista Dickson, which aired on Sept. 1, 2017. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Krys Boyd: Krista, welcome to “Think.”
Krista Dickson: Hi, thank you so much.
Boyd: Some deaf people are born into deaf families. You lost your hearing in an illness. How connected were you to deaf culture as a kid?
Dickson: Well, I became sick, and then I was diagnosed as deaf. I went into a pre-kindergarten program when I was 8 months old, actually. From then on, that was my education pretty much. I was exposed to language very early, and then I went to a regional day-school program, which was specifically for the deaf. So, I grew up using sign language my whole life. I was put in different deaf camps. I went to many deaf events so I was able to socialize and gain exposure that way.
Boyd: You went to school with hearing students and also with deaf students. Is that correct?
Dickson: That is correct, yes. So, I was mainstreamed. I went to a school that had hearing kids but also deaf kids as well. Sometimes, I went to a classroom that was only with the deaf and other times, it was mixed.
Boyd: Did you find in books and TV shows and movies other deaf kids that you could relate to and read their stories?
Dickson: Let’s see. I think the earliest representation was Marlee Matlin when I was around 5 years old when she won the Oscar. I think that was my first exposure, and then the “Deaf President Now” movement in 1988 — that was my second. There would be a few instances here and there, but young people these days have so much more exposure to language and deaf role models. But for me, it was a little limited.
Boyd: Even with the best interpreter, you’re losing a layer. You are understanding things through another person. You’re looking at an interpreter instead of the teacher in school most of the time, and the teacher may not have a great sense of whether you’re understanding or not. Can you talk a little bit about your experience with that?
Dickson: Sure. For me, I’ve used interpreters my whole life, and some interpreters are fantastic. Others are so-so. It really just depends. So it’s hit or miss. Most of my interpreting experiences have been positive. But even with the most skilled, qualified interpreter, I still rely on reading their lips; probably one out of eight words I may miss. So, that’s something I have to contend with. It’s not always a full ASL concept. I might have to guess at certain things, or the interpreter might use a sign that I’m not familiar with, maybe a word I haven’t heard before. If the interpreter is from another state and they sign a specific region, that’s something I have to deal with.
Boyd: Oh, sure, because you don’t know every sign for every city or county or different place.
Boyd: I’ve wondered, too: When I go to a public event, and there’s a sign language interpreter speaking ASL, how close do you need to be to the monitor? Sometimes you might be in a stadium and there’s a television with a picture of an interpreter, but I don’t know how easy that is to read.
Dickson: Well, if they’re, you know, in that 1-inch box, you know, give me a break. That’s not going to work. But, typically, if they’re a reasonable distance, it’s pretty easy to access. But, closeness is an issue. If they have them at least wide enough — like, a picture in a picture — size is important, and I would be able to see them that way.
Boyd: How did you learn that there were universities for the deaf?
Dickson: Really, when I was very young, almost 7, when “Deaf President Now,” that movement, happened. My parents turned my attention to it, and they learned at that time that there was a school set up, and they said “Hey, this is something that you can do.” I really liked that idea. I loved the idea of a place for me, a place where people advocate for and support each other, where they fight for social justice issues. And so, I just knew that I had to go there.
Boyd: I’ve thought about Gallaudet students who didn’t grow up in deaf communities and in deaf families. Stepping onto that campus for the first time, I’ve wondered if it feels like the moment in the movie “The Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy goes from Kansas, where it’s black and white, to Oz, where everything’s suddenly in color.
Dickson: I can’t say I’ve had a similar experience, but I think for many of my friends, it is a culture shock. I went to Texas School for the Deaf for a short period of time. So, I kind of knew what to expect stepping onto the campus, and it was little bit different. I didn’t experience an extreme culture shock, but I know many of my friends definitely have.
Boyd: You studied social work in college?
Boyd: What drew you to that?
Dickson: Well, there’s a story in there. In 2007, I went to Southwest College Institute for the Deaf, and protests were happening during that time period. I was definitely involved in that movement. The issues there were being spotlighted, the different obstacles and barriers. And I realized during that time that I really was and wanted to be an advocate. That was really a dream that was fostered based on that experience.
Boyd: So you wanted to be an advocate for deaf and hearing impaired people?
Dickson: I did. That’s something I wanted to do. But, let me tell you, Krys, when it comes to the phrase “hearing impaired,” that’s not really something that we use because it can be perceived as negative. People don’t realize that there’s a negative implication when you use “impaired,” so that’s just something I like to bring out.
Boyd: I appreciate the correction very much because I certainly didn’t mean to imply anything negative.
Dickson: And I’m definitely not offended — as long as I can help educate people. You know, we all learn from each other and that’s great.
Boyd: Sometimes out in the world, people might see people using ASL to communicate, and it’s very beautiful to watch, but I wonder if it feels intrusive to you, even if you think people can’t understand what you’re saying when you notice that people are looking at you.
Dickson: Honestly, I am so used to it. We have to pick our battles. I can’t be offended every time someone stares, but it’s fascinating, sure. If I see a car I’ve never seen before, and it’s beautiful and shiny and so new, you know, I might take an extra second and stare. So, we have to pick our battles when it comes to things like that.
Boyd: I would imagine when you go places without an interpreter, the burden is on you to make your needs known and to make sure that people understand you. What would you recommend to people who meet a deaf person, who do not speak ASL, but want to be kind and responsive and inclusive of you?
Dickson: Well, it depends on the situation. Let’s say, for example, you’re in the doctor’s office or something like that. You definitely want to have a sign language interpreter in situations like that. Then you can have an interpreter explain how it would work, the procedures for working with one. I like to educate people in those kinds of settings. But if it’s very general, I go to a restaurant for something, I can always write notes back and forth — that’s an accommodation we use quite often.
Boyd: I understand that you are in the market now for a full-time job having graduated from school. Do you feel like employers recognize the value that you bring and your skills and your experiences as a deaf person?
Dickson: I do. I think a lot of people have realized that I am not just deaf, but I am also a person.
Boyd: Krista, it has been such a pleasure. Thank you so much for making time for us.
Dickson: Thank you so much for having me.
Roberta Cordano was a student at Gallaudet University. Now, she’s the first female, deaf president of the school.
Gallaudet University President Cordano explains how the typical design of common spaces, like sidewalks, affects people who sign.
Matthew Maxey signs during a live performance by Chance the Rapper. Note: Some language may not be appropriate for all viewers.
Matthew Maxey signs “Regulate” by Warren G, featuring Nate Dogg. Note: Some language may not be appropriate for all viewers.