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Todd on Sign Language

Friday, June 18th, 2010

Todd is pictured with his tortoise, Lightning

“Special education has always fascinated me. When I got into this work, they were still institutionalizing many  people with special needs. As a student in Pennsylvania, they used to take us to visit the ‘severe and profoundly retarded people,’ as they called them in those days. I also remember once when we met these Siamese twins, Lori and Dori, who were connected at the head. I was always fascinated and inspired by people with special needs’ desire to pursue a normal life despite the hardship.

Who would have guessed that I would have had all of these amazing experience through learning another language?

“In 1977, I came to Washington to study sign language at Gallaudet University. I thought it would make me a more marketable special education instructor. At that time, the school only took hearing students at the graduate level who were studying education. Otherwise, all undergraduates had some degree of deafness. I gotta tell you, it was rough for me. I had a really hard time learning sign language and many of the kids were not that helpful. You know, every day, these kids would struggle in the hearing world trying to make people understand them. On ‘their’ turf, if you didn’t understand, many people would just move on. I thought about leaving, but I stayed and I will never regret it. It is a great skill to have, especially in this city because D.C. is the number one employer of the disabled.

“My first job out of Gallaudet was at the Arizona State School for the Deaf and Blind. I am an east coast boy and had never been farther west than Pittsburgh. Here I was driving to Tucson. I had a class of deaf students who were all boys and didn’t look at me. I used to think, how can deaf kids not look at an instructor and know what is going on? Turns out that they were Papago Indians and in their culture, they are not supposed to look an adult in the eye. Would have been a nice thing to know before I started in the classroom. After a year there, I realized that Arizona was not for me and I came back to D.C. I started teaching high school in Prince George’s County and then came back to Gallaudet to teach adult education.

“While I was in graduate school, I dabbled in translation, but didn’t get into it as a career until I left teaching adult education. Now, I do sign language interpretation full-time. I have done all kinds of events where I am standing right next to the President and other important people. These events are fascinating because you see all of the behind the scenes stuff and get a window into the lives of celebrities and politicians. I did an event for President Clinton right after the Oklahoma City bombing. Talk about fascinating.

“During these events, you become the speaker. Not only do you convey the words, but you convey the tone and affect. When they are loud, your signs are big. When they are quiet, your signs are small. The job has an element of being an actor, too. Every once in a while, I do an event for someone who can be difficult to understand. One time, I translated for the President of South Korea. At every event, there are always two translators, so that we can switch off every 25 minutes and spot each other. The off person sits in front of you and helps if you miss a word. I tell you, there were times when I couldn’t understand a word of what this guy was saying. My colleague had no idea either. I was so nervous, but when I looked out into the crowd, it seemed like no one in the audience had a clue either, so it wasn’t so bad.

“Another great thing about this job is that I also translate for students in different university and graduate programs around D.C. With all of the classes and programs I have translated for, I could have one M.D, one J.D., three Ph.Ds and at least 20 Masters. I follow these kids throughout their program and do all of the work, too. The school pays for all of this. A deaf school will never have to pay to make things accessible. For one guy at American University, I sat through his entire Ph.D. program in education, which is what I studied, including his comps and dissertation defense. Afterwards, the Department Chair asked me if I got any credit for the courses I had attended. I said, ‘No.’ He ended up offering me a scholarship to get my Ph.D. in education.

“Like I said, learning sign language has been one of the most rewarding and interesting things that I have done. Who would have guessed that I would have had all of these amazing experience through learning another language?’

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