California State University, Long Beach
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Disabled Student Services’ Fontan Helps Deaf Students on Campus

Published: September 1, 2009

Disabled Student Services’ Faith Fontan lends a hand to CSULB’s deaf students in more ways than waving hello when they arrive in the office.

Fontan, who joined the university in 1988, coordinates support services for deaf students making her responsible for everything from helping deaf students take notes to recruiting translators and captioners.

“When deaf students come to campus, we assist with their needs,” said Fontan from her office in Brotman Hall. “We ask them what services they received from other campuses, what worked for them, what didn’t work and what they need to be successful in their college journey.”

Trained sign language interpreters pass a series of evaluations before their placement at the right level of their signing competency. “We place them in classrooms depending on what the subject is and who they will work for,” she said. “I have about 20 interpreters and six captioners who work for me. To work in the classroom, captioners must be able to type 180 words a minute (to work in a courtroom, they must type 220+ words a minute). They bring their laptops and keypads and sit next to the students who can then read what’s being said word for word. The captioner then will clean up the copy and e-mail it to the consumer. A transcript also is available for the faculty member. It’s not given to anyone else.”

Fontan found her interest in signing when she grew up with her hearing-impaired sister Sharon. “I began learning sign language through her and eventually discovered when I enrolled at CSU Northridge that I could work as a sign language interpreter,” she said. On her way to a bachelor’s at CSU Northridge, Fontan found she enjoyed having the chance to use her signing expertise. “I enrolled in the Interpreter Training program at CSUN and upon completion, was hired by CSUN to interpret. After graduation I went to work for the California State Department of Rehabilitation as an interpreter and job coach,” she said. “From there, I went on to work as a staff interpreter for the Greater Los Angeles Area Council for the Deaf (GLAD), an organization that works for the needs and rights of the deaf.” Her next stop was Orange County Deaf Services as a staff interpreter and then CSULB.

There have been plenty of changes in how the university reaches its deaf students and helps them stay in touch. “We first used war-surplus technology called TTYs which were an early form of texting,” she said. “What began as something that made people ask, ‘what is that?’ has now become everyday text messaging. And e-mail is replacing that. To this day, I rarely use my phone to communicate with our deaf students.”

Translating from English to sign language is exactly like translating from English to another language, said Fontan. “Some students request an interpreter who is fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) and others prefer Signed English (or some degree of a mix of the two),” she explained. “They want the prepositions, the ‘its’, the ‘was’ and the `ares.’ ASL is a language in and of itself like any other language such as Japanese or French. It’s been likened to the structure of Japanese. We have interpreters who merge ASL and English signing, depending on each student’s communication preference, to give everything they can to their clients.”

Faith Fontan
Photo by David J. Nelson
Faith Fontan

Each signer has an individual style that influences how a coordinator fits a student to an interpreter. “Sometimes, I know a particular translator cannot sign for a particular student or cannot ‘voice’ for them,” she said. “Sometimes a deaf student would prefer an interpreter to `voice’ for them. Deaf people have their own signing styles and interpreters have their own individual styles as well. It may be how they hold their hands or form words. Another interpreter may have wonderful facial expressions. Facial expressions are what give emphasis and meaning to the signs. Depending on what the face does is how the sign is understood.”

Fontan works hard to stay current on what is new in interpretation. One of the most important elements is cultural awareness. She tries to keep an open mind about such issues as cochlear implants. “Decisions like that are very personal,” she said. “There are students who arrive at Disabled Student Services without any kind of hearing aid because they just don’t want to deal with it. Others who receive the implants must be taught to recognize sounds. But whatever they decide, it is strictly up to them.”

Working in Disabled Student Services is a big reason why Fontan has chosen to remain at CSULB. “Working in DSS is great,” she said. “One big reason is DSS Director Dave Sanfilippo and another is our staff. I think we work together well.”

One of the things she most enjoys about DSS is her opportunity to work with students from beginning to end. “I see them graduate,” she said. “There may be counselors who see students once and never again but they are not the case at DSS. Our students are not just numbers. I see students weekly and monthly. I see them all the way through to Commencement.”