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November 11, 2002

Screener Teaching Colleagues To Sign

From: Hartford Courant, CT
Nov. 11, 2002

By PAUL MARKS, Courant Staff Writer

WINDSOR LOCKS -- Surviving airport security is taxing enough these days. But what if every boarding call, every casual remark by a stranger, every terse directive from a security guard went unheard?

That is, what if you were deaf?

Cheryl Heins, a security screener at Bradley International Airport, has no trouble imagining. Growing up with two deaf parents, she and her sisters learned to use American Sign Language just as they learned spoken English.

Now she is sharing that skill with colleagues at the Transportation Security Administration, the federal agency in charge of airport security, as well as with some airline employees at Bradley. Already, many can introduce themselves and ask simple questions with American Sign Language.

"The more communication, the better," Heins told about 15 trainees in a class held last week . "And more interaction between hearing and non-hearing people will bring the two communities together."

Of course, keeping terrorist bombs, guns and knives off flights is the TSA's main mission. But except for spotting the occasional needle in the haystack, most of the screeners' duties involve innocent travelers who are anxious over the new, stricter security measures imposed after Sept. 11, 2001.

That environment can be especially daunting to deaf and hearing-impaired people, said Stacie Mawson, executive director of the Connecticut Commission on the Deaf and Hearing Impaired.

"Traveling can be a very scary thing for deaf individuals because they don't hear the warnings or announcements" so common at airports, she said. "They can be concerned about missing their flight. So if someone can sign to them and communicate, it puts them at ease."

Dana Cosgrove, the federal security director at Bradley, said he jumped at the chance to encourage sign language fluency among his workforce of more than 300, and has recommended to higher-ups in the agency that other airports follow suit. "It falls right in line with ... TSA's philosophy of customer service," he said.

Training coordinator Patrick Feighery said he learned about Heins' skill from an employee questionnaire soon after she was hired. It turned out she already was the one fellow screeners would call when a deaf person passed through the Terminal B checkpoint where Heins works.

"Her skill was right out of the box perfect" for sharing with others, Feighery said.

A training session held Friday began with about 15 volunteer trainees laboriously learning "hello" (hand waved off the temple), "my" (hand over the heart), "name" (two fingers tapping atop two fingers of the other hand), "is" (hand off the chin with pinky extended) ... and then spelling their names letter by letter.

There were some chuckles as a "Deborah" suddenly became "Deb," and "Thomas" shortened his name to "Tom" then slowly formed the three letters. A big laugh came when Heins' mother, Beverly, seated at the end of the table, signed her name as "Bev" in a split-second flash of her hand.

Much of American Sign Language developed from common-sense gestures. Beverly Heins showed the class how she orders coffee (one fist moving over the other in a stirring motion) with cream (two hands pretending to milk a cow) and sugar (two fingers brushing the chin).

Harvey Corson, executive director of the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford, praised the effort being made by the federal screeners, saying, "This will pay off in terms of better communication, more cooperation with individuals being screened and, ultimately, better security for the country."

For a glossary of American Sign Language with video demonstrations, see: is Copyright © 2002 by The Hartford Courant