WEST BETHESDA, Md. — Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division in West Bethesda, Md., observed the 75th annual National Disability Employment Awareness Month in October. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and telework mandates in place, the ceremony was livestreamed on Microsoft Teams.
The event was hosted by Christina Suggs, Special Emphasis Program coordinator and Complaints Manager for Carderock. From the start, the livestream set itself above the bar in terms of accessibility. Throughout the presentation, there were on-screen American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters that signed for speakers and spoke for signers, and captions were provided across the bottom of the screen.
Suggs expressed her excitement for the speakers ahead, and praised the collaboration between warfare centers in getting the stream together. She then introduced Carderock’s commanding officer, Capt. Todd Hutchinson, and technical director, Larry Tarasek.
“By honoring the past, we can secure the future and ensure that we can meet the goal of providing a more inclusive workforce that fosters an environment where all people are recognized for their abilities and valued for their contributions,” said Hutchinson in his remarks at the ceremony. These words echo the observance's 2020 theme of “Honor the Past, Secure the Future.”
Hutchinson further noted that 2020 is the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a watershed piece of civil rights legislation that has had wide impacts throughout the country.
Tarasek followed Hutchinson’s words with a brief background on the origins of the event. “National Disability Employment Awareness Month dates back to the return of service members with disabilities from World War II, sparking public interest in the contributions that people with disabilities could make in our workforce,” said Tarasek.
Lead Sign Language Interpreter at Carderock, Rebekah Knodel, then took to the virtual stage. Highlighting Carderock’s own unique position among Naval Sea Systems Command warfare centers, Knodel noted that there are 10 employees at the installation that are deaf or hard of hearing. She then introduced and gave thanks to the ASL interpreters for the presentation, Paris McTizic and Jet Griffin. Together, they provide the necessary ASL interpretation services to Carderock.
Speaking to individuals that desire to learn ASL, Knodel supports their intentions and provides resources, as well as a word of caution. The ASL App, a free phone application developed by deaf people, is available on both Apple’s App Store and Google Play. The ASL App supports the beginner in learning conversational ASL by offering an easy to access reference of ASL phrases and words. ASL Connect, offered by Gallaudet University, also offers free introductory ASL classes, as well as more robust and interactive ASL and Deaf Studies courses.
“But please, please, please do not use YouTube to learn sign language,” plead Knodel. She explained that because of the wide variety of content available on YouTube and the presence of many non-native signers, you would not be aware you are learning incorrectly.
Suggs then introduced the keynote speaker for the observance ceremony, Anthony “Tony” Madalena. Madalena is proudly deaf and the current director of operations for the Center of Innovation in Ship Design (CISD) at Carderock.
With an ASL interpreter providing voiceover, Madalena shared stories from his upbringing and focused his discussion on raising awareness about deafness and the deaf community. He pointed out that he does not speak for all deaf people as his story is unique to his own experiences.
Born in Rochester, N.Y., Madalena could hear until the age of 2, when he contracted spinal meningitis. He considers himself fortunate though, as spinal meningitis often carries a grimmer prognosis for younger people, including death.
Home to a large deaf community in the United States, Rochester offers primary, secondary, and post-secondary schools for the deaf. Madalena attended Rochester School for the Deaf (RSD) and matriculated from pre-K to 12th grade. “Looking back, I’m grateful to my parents for making the decision for me to attend RSD. It was the best learning environment for me and most importantly gave me access to education in ASL,” said Madalena.
Upon graduation from RSD, Madalena attended the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). NTID is one of the largest technical colleges for the deaf and hard of hearing in the world and offers up to associate’s level degrees. All NTID professors use sign language and class sizes usually range between 10 to 15 students. Upon completion of the NTID program, students who wish to receive a bachelor’s or graduate degree may transfer to one of the various colleges at RIT.
With his NTID coursework completed, Madalena set his sights on the College of Engineering at RIT. Sitting in lecture halls with scores of students, he faced new challenges. Although an ASL interpreter was provided in his classes, he found himself falling behind.
“I struggled to watch the interpreter and take notes, because if I moved my gaze over to the board or down to my paper, the interpreter would continue to interpret the lecture, and I would miss crucial pieces of information,” Madalena explained. Luckily, RIT offers note takers so that deaf and hard of hearing students are able to focus on the lecture via the interpreter, and their peers are able to provide a copy of notes for later reference.
Upon graduation from RIT, Madalena was offered a job at Dahlgren. He was hired through the Workforce Recruitment Program, an outreach effort managed by offices within the Department of Labor and Department of Defense. The program provides opportunities for students with disabilities to pursue internships and employment with the government.
Transferring to Carderock after nine years with Dahlgren, Madalena worked with Code 82 before joining CISD in 2019. At CISD he lead a project called No Manning Required Ship (NOMARS) which investigated creating an unmanned vessel that could operate at sea for extended periods. The project was a seedling study funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
The NOMARS project was coordinated between teams at Carderock, Naval Surface Warfare Center Philadelphia Division, and Combatant Craft Division (CCD), based at Little Creek in Virginia Beach, Va. It was deemed a success and DARPA was pleased with the team’s recommendations. At the conclusion of the project, Madalena was asked to stay at CISD as a staff member. After a few months, the director of operations position became vacant and he jumped at the opportunity.
Madalena took time to discuss his experience working at warfare centers with interpreters. When he started at Dahlgren he was the only deaf employee on base. Desiring an interpreter to access communication with his hearing peers, Madalena spoke with his supervisor and leadership to determine the best approach. Dahlgren’s leadership was more than willing to make the accommodation and created a billet for a full-time staff interpreter.
The situation at Carderock was a bit different. Despite having 10 deaf employees, an as-needed contract was utilized for interpreting services in lieu of full-time staff. The problem with contracted interpreters is that the quality varies between vendors, and some of the contractors were not able to provide the necessary interpretation skills commensurate to the level of work done at a warfare center.
After explaining the problem to Carderock leadership, Madalena’s request for a single highly skilled full-time staff interpreter was granted. Her skills caused an increased demand for interpretation services at Carderock, and led to hiring two additional interpreters.
In addition to speaking on his personal experiences, Madalena talked about deaf culture and identity at large. In particular, he wished to raise awareness about the problem of language deprivation.
Quoting statistics, Madalena said 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents, and that only one in four deaf children learn sign language. He attributes this phenomena to parents attempting to treat their child’s deafness with a doctor’s recommendation, such as cochlear implants and hearing aids.
Although these treatments provide benefit to some, they can also lead to frustration for parents and children alike. Madalena sums it up succinctly, “To their dismay, this doesn’t fix the hearing loss and the child is still missing out on communication. This then snowballs into the child being deprived from any language at an early age and cases them to have language delays.”
Madalena also gave examples of accepted decorum for interacting with deaf people. If trying to get a deaf person’s attention, it is entirely appropriate to tap them on the shoulder, wave your hands in their peripheral vision, or even flip a light on and off a couple times.
When referring to a deaf person, Madalena asks that people stop using the phrase “hearing impaired.” He explains that the word “impaired” carries negative connotations and implies that a person needs fixing. He poignantly states, “When you look at me, do you see me as an impaired? Is something wrong with me? I’m fine, right? I’m just deaf. I’m proud to be deaf, and it’s perfectly appropriate to call me that.”
When communicating with a deaf or hard of hearing person, Madalena has a few tips. The first is to maintain eye contact. As ASL is a visual-spatial language, meaning is communicated not only through signs, but expressions, body location, and movement. Also, speak to the person you are talking to, not to the interpreter.
Gesturing, pointing, and demonstrating are also useful when communicating. But, there is no need for excessiveness; just point or gesture to the subject to get a point across. It is also not useful to over articulate your words or speak loudly. Not all deaf or hard of hearing people can read lips.
Tying the keynote to the year’s theme, Madalena told the story of the Deaf President Now movement. The movement revolved around the election of the next president for Gallaudet University, a Washington D.C. private liberal arts university for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Since the establishment of Gallaudet, the presidency had always been occupied by a hearing – non-deaf – person. But in 1988, one of the two candidates running was a deaf individual, Dr. I. King Jordan. To the disappointment of the deaf community and its allies, the university chose the hearing candidate for the position.
Following several days of protests, the university recanted and appointed Jordan to the presidency. Madalena vividly remembers watching an interview of Jordan where the interviewer asks, “What makes you the best candidate for presidency at Gallaudet University? What can you do that the other candidate can’t?” Jordan responded with a quote that is famous in the deaf community to this day. “Deaf people can do anything hearing people can do, except hear.”
Madalena recalls that this quote was repeated at RSD by instructors to motivate him to do whatever he wanted to do. “This hits home for me. I truly believe that deaf people can do anything. That historic moment that took place in 1988 is something that I honor and it has secured the future for multiple generations beyond that. I stand here and proudly see how it has had reverberating effects and opened doors to success for many deaf individuals,” said Madalena.
Following the end of the keynote, Suggs, Knodel, and Madalena took questions from the virtual audience through the Microsoft Teams chat as well as on Fusion. Suggs then brought the ceremony to a close, thanking the speakers for their time and effort.