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May 2, 2004

Signing teacher puts accent on public safety

From: Boston Globe, MA - May 2, 2004

By Joanna Massey, Globe Staff | May 2, 2004

When her 19-month-old daughter lapsed into a fever-induced seizure recently, Marianne Molinari's gut reaction was that of most parents: utter panic. But as an American Sign Language instructor, her second reaction was slightly less common.

''I couldn't help thinking 'What if I was deaf?' " she said. ''As I answered the EMTs' questions, I realized what it would be like if they couldn't speak my language. They may as well just drive by the house."

Molinari, who lives in Whitman, does more than just imagine emergency situations involving the deaf; she recreates them during a weekly signing class she runs for local public safety officials.

The class, geared toward police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, doctors, and nurses, is designed to help them communicate with a deaf person at the scene of a fire, accident, or medical emergency, when ''seconds can save lives and the difference between yes and no can be huge," Molinari said.

''Even a basic question like, 'Are you allergic to any medications?' can have life or death repercussions," she said. ''There are a lot of deaf living in this area, but hardly anyone working in public safety can sign."

Many of the people who take Molinari's class at the Conant Community Health Center in Bridgewater told her of feeling frustrated and helpless after being unable to communicate with a deaf person, she said.

Molinari said a Rockland firefighter ''practically ran to the ASL class" after he arrived at a burning apartment complex and was unable to calm a distraught deaf mother whose children were trapped inside.

Molinari has been signing for 27 years.

Glenda Harriman, a 911 dispatcher with the Plymouth Police Department, said learning at least basic sign language will keep her from having to exchange written notes with deaf people who come into the police station.

''At least one person in the department should be able to communicate with them," she said.

Harriman, who is taking Molinari's five-week class for the third time, said she has encouraged her husband, Dana, the fire chief in Carver, and her son, David, a Carver police officer, to learn sign language. In response to the demand, Molinari has been asked to teach an ASL class for Carver's emergency service personnel, Harriman said.

''It isn't something you learn just by going to a few classes; you really have to study it and use it," she said. ''But I feel like now if someone was broken down on side of road and they were deaf, I believe I know enough to stop and communicate with them and help."

While many local police and fire departments require at least one person on staff to speak Spanish, the same is not true of ASL, which is the third-most-used language in the country after English and Spanish, according to Molinari, who is certified by the deaf studies program at Northeastern University in Boston. She said few people who should know how to use it, such as special education teachers, have actually learned.

While visiting a local elementary school, Molinari said, she recently met with school officials who were unable to get in touch with the deaf mother of a student.

''They had no idea that you can dial 711 and be connected with a TTY [text telephone] line," she said. ''When dealing with the deaf, a lot of people think they can just write everything down, but people who are native ASL speakers often have a hard time reading or writing. English is a second language."

At South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, where Molinari has been training emergency room nurses in ASL, deaf patients can be seen more quickly when they don't have to wait for an interpreter. Word has spread among the deaf community and the hospital, which before saw about one deaf person a month, is now seeing about six a week, she said.

Not only public safety workers attend Molinari's Wednesday night signing class. Others come to learn to communicate with a deaf family member or co-worker .

For 23-year-old Melanie Malchionno of Carver, that person was an elderly deaf woman whom she took care of two years ago while working at the Duxbury House, run by the state Department of Mental Retardation.

''Even though I don't use it for work anymore, I have kept learning it and am even thinking about becoming an interpreter," she said. ''Even if you don't have anyone specific to communicate with, it's a really neat thing to learn."

On Fridays, Molinari also runs a ''Signing for Families" class for parents with deaf children or deaf parents with hearing children. Demand is so great that in March she began an advanced ''voice off" class taught entirely in ASL.

Since her course is approved by several state agencies, Molinari is able to provide paramedic credits to EMTs, professional development points to teachers, and contact hours to nurses.

For more information on the course, call 781-447-2470.

Joanna Massey can be reached at

© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.