This Sunday we chatted with Alexander Balsley, a civil/ environmental engineer with the US Coast Guard Research and Development Center. Thanks, Alex, for being our guinea pig! :)
Redeafined: A lot of Redeafined's pieces focus on education options for deaf children. Can you talk a little bit about your education growing up?
Alex: I come from a deaf family who went to Clarke School, and since I grew up in Hadley, MA it made sense for my parents to send me to Clarke School, which was a town over in Northampton. Obviously it's a school that puts an emphasis on teaching the deaf to use their voices, and discourages them from using hand gestures of any kind. I never learned sign language [in school] during the time I went to Clarke. When I was 10 years old, I asked my mom if I could go to the local public school since I was inseparable from my neighbor, Russell. I always thought it was weird to have the "special" school bus picking me up in my driveway when Russell, my best friend, went to the "regular" school. So I asked my parents if I could stop going to Clarke.
At the same time, education at Clarke was lacking for me. Previously when my parents visited me during "Parents Day," they saw that I was easily bored. So because of that, coupled with my desire to go to school with Russ, I asked my parents to take me out. But the principal of Clarke didn't want me to leave, so the school suggested I skip a level. (There are no traditional grade levels at Clarke school. I was in Level 6 at the time, which is the equivalent of, I think, 4th grade.) So I moved up to Level 7 and spent one year there. But I still wasn't happy, so finally we made the decision to leave. Over the summer and before I started public school in the fall (6th grade), my parents found an oral interpreter for me. And she stayed with me from 6th grade until graduation.
Redeafined: So what does an oral interpreter do?
Alex: You're familiar with an ASL interpreter; an oral interpreter is in the same physical position where the ASL interpreter would be, only instead of signing, she would simply mouth the words that were being said, with some gestures to help get the meaning across. And I would just speak for myself. That situation worked because I was in a tiny school; we had about 35 kids per grade for a total of about 270 from grades 7-12. And when I say that worked, I mean I knew all the kids and they all knew me, so they were used to my voice, and could understand me. The school system was very small so I had a lot of teachers who understood me as well. The teachers were my neighbors in the town, so it was all a close-knit community. I never felt I stood out even with an interpreter. But if there was ever any misunderstanding, Jan [the interpreter] would repeat the words in question for me.
R: So when did you learn ASL?
A: To be honest I don't remember. But I do know I picked up a lot of sign language from my older brother, who was dating a deaf girl from Maryland when he was 14, which would probably make me 11 or 12 years old. I also went to Camp Mark 7, a deaf camp up in Old Forge, New York. It was a signing camp and I recall fitting in the camp fine, so I must have some understanding of sign through exposure to my parents' friends. But the biggest factor was probably my brother.
R: How do you and your family communicate at home?
A:Well we definitely sign more now, but at the time, we probably relied on lip reading and exaggerated mouth movements to make ourselves understood--the "Clarke" way. We definitely gestured a lot more than we did on Clarke campus. Some signs were used I'm sure, but we still depended on lipreading.
I came across a home video a couple months ago. In it I was maybe nine or ten; my dad was a talk show host and I was a special guest discussing my summer vacation. Lameness aside, it was riveting because it was an insight into how I communicated with my dad. I was speaking, but with
no voice, exaggerated mouth movements, and a lot of gestures. And then my dad, with the same speaking style as mine, asked me about Camp Mark 7. He said, "So I hear you're attending Camp Mark 7 with kids that...sign. Can you handle it?" And I said "Oh yes! I even know sign language!" My dad said, "Really? I do too. Care to sign your name?" I spelled out my name and then signed for a little bit with my dad, and then we moved on to another subject, back to the Clarke speaking style. So that was interesting. I'm still unsure when exactly signing really took over. At the time, I had no signing deaf friends, and most of my friends were hearing so I was really into talking.
R: So we know that nine out of ten deaf children are born to hearing parents. Do you think having a deaf family made things different for you growing up?
A: Big time. Home was always a safe space for me to escape the hearing world. I could come home, talk to my parents about school, complain about my brother using the computer, try to finish my homework as fast as possible so I could play video games, and get scolded for playing them too long. I think it just helped to have a crystal clear line of communication. Because of that, my family experience was as normal as my neighbors' family experience. I never felt a disconnect with my parents or brother in terms of expressing my feelings or any weird thoughts. My dad and I are able to have those quirky conversations. I really feel if they were hearing, I would've missed all that.
R: Because you wouldn't have as much in common, or because communicating would have been harder?
A: Because of the communication, for sure. If my family was hearing, I would've missed out on the subtle hearing things like the tone of their voices, or jokes they'd tell to other hearing people in my presence. But because they were deaf, I knew exactly who my parents were, what their personalities were like. Same with my brother.I caught everything that they said or expressed.
If I was paying attention, of course.
R: So eventually you went off to college. Why did you make the switch from an oral interpreter?
A: By the time I went to college, I was comfortable with signing and felt that I'd rather get an interpreter comfortable with his or her skills instead of getting an ASL interpreter masquerading as an oral one. I visited Northeastern and met all their staff interpreters, and oral interpreting never really came up so I just never pursued it. It was more of, "well you know ASL the best, so you sign for me." But I sometimes did request them to lighten up on the ASL and do more PSE if they could, especially with my engineering and science courses.
R: And how was the college experience for you at Northeastern?
A: Great. I love the staff interpreters there. They definitely knew what kind of signing was best for me, so recurring interpreters are great to have. But sometimes new freelance interpreters would substitute for my regular interpreters and I'd ask if they could be more PSE, since I rely on lipreading more anyway. I mean signing helps, but usually I first look to lipreading and then signing enhances the comprehension.
R: Did Northeastern have a strong Deaf community at the time?
A: Yes, Deaf communities change in colleges since it all depends on what kind of students come through. During my time there was a mix of deaf signers and CI deafies who dabbled in signing. And the Northeastern interpreting program is big, so there were a lot of interpreters who were open to hanging out with all types of deafies. So the whole "Deaf community" at NU consisted of deaf signers, CI deafies (some needed interpreters, some didn't) and interpreting students.
R: And what made you decide to study engineering?
A: I grew up liking math. I asked my dad what you could do in the future if you liked math, and engineering was one of the fields he brought up. I already liked solving problems and playing with Legos, so engineering was something I kind of thought I would always do. For my first year at NU, I was an undecided engineering major. When I had to choose a specific engineering field at the end of my freshman year, I figured, "well I like the environment!" so I went for civil/environmental engineering.
R: Can you talk a little about your job now?
A: I'm a Project Manager for the US Coast Guard Research and Development Center. I work in the Environment and Waterways branch. A lot of our projects deal with oil spill and ballast water treatment technologies. Actually, I should be more specific-- oil spill response technology. We try to improve oil skimmers (that collect surface oil), to further technologies that remove heavy oil (stuff that sinks to the bottom of lakes/ocean), or detect oil within the water column. So it's a lot of oil detection and removal technologies for various types of oil spilled into the environment.
R: What's the most difficult part about being a deaf person in a hearing workplace?
A: The most challenging for me is the interpreters. I have a lot of last-minute meetings, so I can't necessarily get interpreters there right away in person. For those type of meetings, I rely on Video Relay Service (VRS) and most of the time, I get interpreters who are easily lost with the lingo I use for work. Sometimes the meetings are with some guys in DC that I email a lot, so when I use common terminology, the interpreters are lost and ask me to repeat again (and sometimes again, and again and again), and I come across sounding like an idiot. So that's definitely frustrating.
R: If you had to choose the most important thing you'd want a hearing person to know about being deaf or about Deaf culture, what would it be?
A: I'd want people to understand that ASL is in fact a language. It's not English. We aren't disabled and sign language is not an aid for us like a walking cane is for the physically disabled. It's a language and it is to be respected. The deaf should not be pitied for using sign language. That's what I'd like for hearing people to understand-- that we are not a disabled group, but we are people with a different culture than theirs.
R: Okay, last one: what do you like to do on your day off?
A: Read! I love my sci-fi/fantasy novels, but I also enjoy staying active so I could be going to the gym, running, or hiking and collecting National Park Stamps. And, of course, I love spending time with the wifey!