Airman Crosses from Deaf Culture into Blue Future

Staff Sgt. Stephen Small 600x400

TRANSIT CENTER AT MANAS, Kyrgyzstan -- The house in Norfolk, Va., was noisy. The children shouted across the house to each other. The T.V., when on, always had closed captions. The father was born able to hear and eventually lost his hearing. The mother was born deaf.

They aren't aware of the noises they make. They shout occasionally--to catch the attention of the children. The children, ranging from toddlers to teenagers, were able to hear, but always used sign language as a parental rule. The oldest learned to speak in school and taught the others. As they grew up and encountered the hearing world, they adapted to different cultures and methods of communication, such as the difference between unspoken emotions and various ways to articulate spoken conversation.

Many of the children grew up to join the military. One joined the Air Force.
 
He enjoys keeping to himself, but he loves to laugh and always has stories to tell. It's not exactly what someone might expect from Staff Sgt. Stephen Small, a six-foot-two-inch 376th Air Expeditionary Wing protocol member.
 
Deployed out of Barksdale Air Force Base, La., Small said his parents completely supported their children's decisions to join the military. Leaving the world of his deaf parents, he embraced a completely different culture.
 

"The deaf culture and the hearing culture are very different worlds," Small said. "When you've switched back and forth between them, you've got to remember what's going on."
 
Having deaf parents gave Small experiences some might not even consider.
 
"Growing up, it's kind of weird. I always have crazy stories," he smiled. "When my mom took each one of us to our respective parent-teacher conferences, they never had an interpreter, so we had to sign for the school. So if we were doing badly in class, we had to tell our parents that. There was no way to hide it; you can't turn your face away."
 
Small said people that know him are surprised he works in protocol.
 
"I'm an introvert," he said. "When you've got six siblings, you don't feel forced to go out and make friends. I've got these six mandatory friends," he laughed. "As they got older and some started joining the military, it was just me and my younger brother. We were really close, but when it's just two of you, you're really kind of forced to go outside and make friends, to venture out and meet people."
 
While at work, Small enjoys raising morale by telling his stories, and at social events can often be seen making people laugh. One story tells how he got used to wearing lotion as a child.
 
"It was third grade," he said. "We decided to pick an island theme for a show. Who else are they going to pick for an island theme than the little Jamaican boy. We had a little dance and little outfits; it's going to be fun. Meanwhile, I was thinking I've got to put on lotion.
 
"So it comes to the point where we've got to go without shoes, and I've got no lotion on my feet at all. I'm up on stage with ashy feet and my mom was all embarrassed. She told me that from here on out, she's going to put lotion on my feet. It was a bad night," he laughed.
 
Small has since learned the differences in types of conversation.
 
"Some people consider direct words rude," he said. "In deaf culture, if you have anything to say, just say it. Sometimes when I was interpreting to a customer, Dad would appear as if he was coming across as rude or offensive. I've had to step in and say he's not trying to be rude or offensive; he's being direct about how it is or what's going on. If my dad tells you something, there's a reason why he's telling you it. He's talking to you to get a point across."
 
Expression and emotions are also communicated differently. Some of the distinctions between sign language and talking are the tone and emphasis used. In sign language everything about the way people sign shows how they feel. Aggressive signing can express yelling, and signing quickly can show frustration; facial expression and body movements all play a part in sign language, he said.
 
Some of the cultural and language barriers he has overcome in the past have helped him communicate better in his work now.
 
"A key thing I learned is to communicate effectively," he said. "When we're talking to someone, does the person we're talking to understand it? If I'm not communicating clearly, I might as well be speaking a foreign language."

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