The following blog post was written by Ann Marie Rohaly - Director of Accessibility Policy and Standards at Microsoft. She has a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering and has worked in the area of accessibility since 2009.
I have always loved learning languages. In sixth grade, I was excited the day the junior high school language teachers visited my class. I knew immediately that I wanted to learn French, even though everyone said it was much harder than Spanish. Later in high school, I was flipping through television channels one lazy Saturday when I realized I could follow an Italian opera without subtitles because of the similarities between Italian and French.
Over the years, I have traveled around the world on business and before each trip I have learned a bit of the local language. Besides being useful, I enjoy studying new languages and seeing the look of appreciation on people’s faces when I try, no matter how awkwardly, to communicate in their native tongue.
I have wanted to learn American Sign Language (ASL) for a long time and last year Microsoft offered me an opportunity to take a 12-session class, Signing for the Workplace. As we started, some students were nervous about having a teacher who was deaf and her no-voices policy. But, since I learned French in a total immersion environment, I was up for the challenge. My main concern was being left-handed. All my life, I’ve had to adapt to a right-handed world and I was pleasantly surprised to learn it was OK to sign with my left hand.
Being a visual thinker, I find that the conceptual nature of ASL speaks to me (pun intended). One of the things I like about learning languages is discovering patterns and relationships among words and expressions. For example, I find it fascinating yet intuitive that signs for class, team, family and organization are similar because the underlying concept is the same - a group of people.
Since that class I have tried out my new ASL skills and once again I have received encouraging feedback. The first question always was: “Who do you practice with?” In addition to an employee group that gets together once a month over lunch, I’m lucky to have a daughter who is studying ASL in college. Even though she is far from home, we are often on Skype and practice ASL together. She recently completed her second year of college ASL, so I have a thing or three to learn from her. I am looking forward to our future Skype sessions so I can keep improving.
Here in British Columbia, ASL is believed to be the fifth most commonly used language. So its not about isolation, its about separation from the opportunities of our larger communities. Technologies such as TTYs or captioning allow a "direct connect" between the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and the larger communities. New technologies will continue to format the soundscape into a visual state and permit autonomous and independent communication - maybe for the first time.
I've been learning ASL for the past couple of years so next time I see you at the FCC or CSUN we can practice...