The Art of Sign in a Secure Environment

  • Published
  • By Susan A. Romano
  • AFTAC Public Affairs
There is an old saying that goes, “Actions speak louder than words.”  For one employee at the Air Force Technical Applications Center, certain actions are executed at just the right volume.
Le Chen, a statistician with the 21st Surveillance Squadron here, was hired in August to work at the Department of Defense’s sole nuclear treaty monitoring center.  His role is to use mathematical formulas and techniques to analyze and interpret copious amounts of technical data the center receives on a daily basis.
Chen is also deaf and communicates almost exclusively using sign language.
So how does an employee in a secure facility whose mission is considered “no fail” with international-level implications, operate in an environment where few people are fluent signers?
“There are many ways for my co-workers to communicate with me,” Chen said.  “Email and online chat functions are great ways for me to send and receive messages from my peers and supervisors, and I always have a white board or notepad next to me so we can write notes to each other.”
Chen also relies on body language, eye contact, facial expressions, posture, hand gestures, and even silence to understand the message being relayed.

“I am not a lip reader, but I have learned to interpret conversations in a variety of ways, and I always appreciate it when a colleague tries to learn a few words or phrases using sign language, even if they just use their fingers to count numbers!”
Chen grew up in the shadow of the nation’s capital and earned his bachelor’s degree in Mathematics from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the only university in the world designed for deaf or hard of hearing students.  From there, he went on to earn his master’s degree in Statistics from Georgia State University.  According to the Maryland native, both had their own set of challenges.
“Signing has always been my primary form of communication,” he said.  “English is my first language, so since I was in Kindergarten, I used what’s called SEE and PSE.  SEE stands for ‘Signed Exact English’ and PSE stands for ‘Pidgin Signed English.’”
For clarity, SEE is an exact word-for-word translation of spoken English, using proper grammar as it would be written on paper.  PSE, on the other hand, is a combination of SEE and American Sign Language (ASL). Many in the hearing-impaired community (as well as translators who are not deaf) use this fusion of both SEE and ASL.
ASL is the predominant language in deaf communities in the United States and portions of English-speaking Canadian provinces.  It is a visual language that is expressed through hand- and facial-gestures.  Much like any language, regions adopt certain dialects, fingerspelling, and patterns the same way areas of the U.S. have spoken accents.  Signers from the South tend to have a slower, more easy-going flow, whereas Northeasterners have more quick, snappier gestures.
Chen prides himself on being skilled in all forms of sign communication.
Prior to joining AFTAC, the trained statistician was a bioinformatics specialist for the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., focusing on deafness and other communication disorders. He was excited when he found the opening for a data scientist at the treaty monitoring center.
“I was really happy to find a position where I could use my education and apply my past experience,” Chen said.  “It’s not often you find statistician jobs at a pay grade I was looking for.  But I wasn’t expecting that I’d be working for a military branch that would require a security clearance!”
His selection presented an interesting situation to AFTAC’s Human Resource office.

“In order to leverage Mr. Chen’s unique attributes, AFTAC HR has re-thought the way we do business as a government organization,” said Audrey Capps, AFTAC’s Chief of Human Resources.  “To meet the needs of a more diverse workforce, we have worked to ensure all hiring processes are accessible to tap into every applicant’s potential.  We were excited to offer Mr. Chen the opportunity to interview with us and showcase his skills without barriers of traditional communication.  The interview process allowed the hiring manager to have written communication in a live format, which was a win-win for all involved.”
When asked what one of his biggest challenges has been as a person with a hearing impairment, Chen described the division that still exists within the deaf community.
“There are categories that tend to divide us into groups – the small ‘d’ people, the big ‘D’ people, signers, lip readers, oral speakers, cochlear implant people, etc.  Unfortunately, this division tends to further isolate the deaf community, but I do think we’re slowing coming along with the help of technology, social media, online apps, and education.”
[Editor’s note:  small ‘d’ refers to people who typically lost their hearing later in life and do not necessarily associate themselves with the deaf community, whereas big ‘D’ refers to those who were born deaf and fully identify themselves as a member of the deaf community.]
“In other words,” Chen explained, “the big ‘D’ world has its own cultural identity, unlike the small ‘d’ people, who might not have their own deaf identity.”
As an AFTAC employee, Chen does not expect to have a full-time interpreter at his side, but knows he can request one for certain situations, training sessions, or other events that could impact his work responsibilities.
“Over the years I have learned that it’s more important to build good relationships with supervisors and colleagues, not with interpreters,” he explained.  “Sure, it’s great and convenient to have an interpreter at your side to translate what’s being discussed, but that should be the exception, not the norm.  Building a network with those you work with is far more impactful, even if it means having that dialog in non-traditional ways.”
Chen has had several people of influence in his life, but he credits one person in particular who has had the greatest impact on him.
“My dad isn’t just a father to me; he’s my mentor,” Chen said.  “He always placed great importance on education, especially in science fields like chemistry, physics, and math.  He is a gifted neurologist and currently works as a staff scientist at the National Institutes of Health.  He taught me that self-learning is a critical skill to have, and it’s one of the best ways to develop a baseline that a formal education might not provide.”
When he’s not crunching numbers or conducting statistical analysis, Chen likes to spend his off time in the great outdoors.
“Hiking is probably one of my most favorite hobbies,” he said.  “It helps me explore new landmarks and exposes me to some of the most beautiful places on earth.  Before I moved to Florida, my parents and I traveled to Peru to visit their national parks – Machu Picchu, Rainbow Mountain, and Humantay Lake.  We also visited Patagonia’s Torres del Paine to experience the majestic mountain peaks, and Argentina’s Perito Moreno National Park to see the glacier there.  All of them were spectacular!  It was a lifetime goal of mine to see those places, and I learned that I can quickly adapt to very high altitudes without getting altitude sickness or needing an oxygen cylinder.  Cusco is more than 11,000 feet above sea level, and I had no problems at all!”
His supervision has been impressed with his work ethic and ability to adapt to his work environment.
“I am very happy to have him on the team,” said Dr. Malek Chatila, Chief of the Debris Analysis Flight, and one of AFTAC’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Accessibility team leads.  “We worked closely with Human Resources, the AFTAC Security Office, and Darrell Archard, the 709th Surveillance and Analysis Group security manager, to make Mr. Chen’s transition and in-processing as smooth as possible, especially since the organization did not have the experience in recruiting a hearing-impaired individual.”

Chatila continued, “We are making headway in obtaining the necessary accommodation technologies for him, but the pace has been slower than we would have hoped.  While I believe in the DEI&A principles, I will emphasize that Mr. Chen was solely selected for this position based on his merit.”
Chatila also emphasized the productive and supportive role the former 21st SURS commander, Lt. Col. Shaun Easley, played at the time of Mr. Chen’s selection, and the continued support of the current squadron commander, Lt. Col. Stephen Jimenez.
“AFTAC prides itself on having a highly technical workforce operating in a diverse and inclusive work environment,” said Jimenez. “Due to his extensive qualifications and the efforts of Dr. Chatila and many others, Le has not only been a welcome addition to the AFTAC family, but also a necessary one in order to cultivate and maintain the technical skills to execute the mission. I hope his presence and contributions help to encourage and educate others both now and in the future.” 
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month and through a Congressional declaration in 1988, it is a vehicle to raise awareness of the employment needs and contributions of individuals with all types of disabilities.