By Chase Rheam
STILLWATER, Okla. —
One woman used her former encounters with an unknown language and a need to change standards as a reason to change her career path more than 27 years ago.
Sandie Busby is a deaf and hard of hearing specialist and instructor at Oklahoma State University. However, her former career was in hair.
“When I moved here to Oklahoma in 1979, I did hair and I had deaf people come into my shop and they would tell me they didn’t have an interpreter, they had a lousy interpreter or nobody showed up,” she said.
This wasn’t Busby’s first brush with sign language, though. Her father was a military man. Growing up, Busby had the chance to meet many different people.
“I met a little girl ... and she was deaf and used sign but she taught me some baby signs,” she said. “We would chat and have our own little conversations in our own little world. Then, when my dad got transferred to Alaska, there were a lot of deaf people there. I used to play basketball with them. I’d ski with them. We went and did Bible studies together, so I learned a lot of sign from them. That’s where I got the conversational skill.”
She would eventually make the move to Oklahoma from Kansas, becoming a hairstylist. Then one faithful customer brought sign language back into Busby’s world.
“I had done this one young lady’s hair for quite a while and she was Miss Deaf Oklahoma,” she said.
Busby helped the woman with her hair and makeup for the pageant, but noticed the complaints she had always heard from her deaf customers seemed to be true, at least in this instance.
“I had seen the people signing,” Busby said. “I knew that’s what they had said, but that’s not what I heard. It didn’t match.”
The sight was enough to convince Busby to attend school to learn how to interpret. She sold her shop in 1990.
At the time, there were not enough interpreters and not many were qualified, she said.
“Back then, there was no educational requirement,” Busby said. “If you had a good day and passed the test, you were certified.”
That has changed throughout the years as she noted a historically significant event in Washington D.C.’s Gallaudet University and its Deaf President Now movement which occurred during the appointment of the 124-year-old university’s first deaf president in 1988.
Discussion went into Americans with Disabilities Act and how it could provide equal access for deaf people, including captioning and qualified interpreters for places such as public schools and state agencies.
Busby began working at the University of Tulsa in 1991 and began to challenge the head instructor of interpreting education to encourage students to learn sign language.
“They were using Signed English which is why I was giving them such a hard time,” she said. “I use American Sign Language, which is the native language. Signed English is a system of codes.”
The head instructor took her up on the challenge after a number of years and came to the realization that students did not understand one another, she said. They began to change the system and the state began to make its own changes.
“We changed the Signed English and threw that out, put in American Sign Language requirements and we passed a bill in the legislature that American Sign Language is equal to a foreign language because it’s based on French,” she said.
After independently contracting with the only state agency at the time to interpret, Busby began to contract with businesses or areas not being sought by the agency.
“Well, they got mad at me and canceled my contract so I took them to unemployment court,” she said.
This eventually resulted in Busby beginning her own agency — Visual Communications. The agency has changed hands multiple times and now is known as Sign Language Resource. She still contracts with both agencies.
In 2004, Oklahoma State University hired Busby to assist with an incoming deaf football player named Martel Van Zant.
Van Zant, a cornerback, became a hit with OSU fans who would show their support by waving their hands to signify applause.
“Everybody took part in that and then if he was doing good, they would stomp their feet because he could feel the vibration,” she said. “That became the thing to do.”
Van Zant’s presence brought attention to the deaf community.
“OSU had had one (deaf student) since 1992,” Busby said.
Following the public attention Van Zant brought to Busby, several deaf students began to enroll at the university, she said.
“He had been the only student that was deaf that required an interpreter,” she said. “Now, we’ve had hard of hearing students that come but they don’t require an interpreter; maybe just notes.”
Busby and others began to do their part in supporting deaf students and OSU began to offer an ASL class.
“We have a cap on there of 24 and it’s always full,” she said.
She hopes to have the university hold a second section.
Silent dinners were held at a Stillwater church.
“They’ve come ever since and supported our deaf students and the students learning sign and supported our interns,” she said.
Coming together as a community and socializing is an important step for all involved, Busby said.
“When I was taking classes back in the 80s, you had to go socialize with deaf people,” she said.
The practice faded with time and a connection with people through a variety of levels, languages, dialects, generational signs and ages disappeared.
Building rapport is important, she said.
Amber Newbold, a practicum student from Tulsa Community College, said the idea is making a return.
“We’re required so many community interactions,” Newbold said. “We previously would have to write about our experiences. Now they’re trying to change it where it’s all in sign and submitted on video so that we’re getting our hands up more.”
However, there is still much that can be done.
“We want to get a licensure bill passed because if we’re certified, then either the national office or the state office is monitoring,” Busby said.
“They’re our watchdogs. So, if something happens, somebody can file a grievance and they can take corrective steps.”
For example, Busby said if an interpreter who is not certified signs and causes a death, financial problems or any issue, there are no plans in place that would hold them accountable.
She said she hopes to rewrite the legislation for consideration.
Stillwater has undergone changes to be accessible.
“It used to be deaf people would come here and not have availability of services and leave, but now more people are moving in and staying so I think the community, as a whole, is getting better at providing interpreting services for the deaf people,” she said.
“The theater, this February, finally got captioning so deaf people can enjoy the movies here in Stillwater. They don’t have to drive to Tulsa or Oklahoma City, so that’s very nice.”
And OSU remains ahead of others educational institutions, she said.
“OU doesn’t have a program, NSU is starting a program, TCC has now drastically improved their program; OSU-OKC has their interpretive program and we’re in the process now of trying to get that together where we can have that become a bachelor’s degree,” she said.
The National Wrestling Hall of Fame on OSU campus recently honored collegiate amateur wrestling champion and MMA fighter Mark Hamill, who is deaf. The university also holds camps for the deaf community, she said.
“Deaf people are excited to come to OSU,” Busby said.