Signaling awareness: Deaf employee teaches American Sign Language at Whirlpool

Graham Forsey, a business analyst for Whirlpool Corp. and co-founder of Awareness of Visible and Invisible Disabilities, teaches Sheila Thurman and Anna Romero a lesson Wednesday about American Sign Language at Whirlpool’s Riverview Campus. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

Graham Forsey, a business analyst for Whirlpool Corp. and co-founder of Awareness of Visible and Invisible Disabilities, teaches Sheila Thurman and Anna Romero a lesson Wednesday about American Sign Language at Whirlpool’s Riverview Campus. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — Since early February, a few Whirlpool Corp. employees have spent their Wednesdays in two-hour classes for something not appliance-related.

It’s called American Sign Language 101 and it’s taught by Graham Forsey.

Forsey is a business analyst at Whirlpool and co-founder of AVID – the employee resource group known as Awareness of Visible and Invisible Disabilities. Born deaf, Forsey has been coming up with ways to raise awareness for the deaf and the hard of hearing, including the ASL class.

It costs $50 to attend, which accounts for the material and textbook required. The book is for employees to keep, but Forsey said the price helps keeps participants committed to the class.

“The first class was very large and some of them realized there is a lot of work and time committed to it. It’s not as laid back as they thought,” Forsey said. “A lot of people are strapped for time. It does take time to learn, so the class dwindles until we get to the committed students.”

In the first class, participants took a deaf culture quiz. A lot of them were surprised by the results.

Anna Romero, GIS lead analyst, said she thought ASL was used on a global basis. She soon learned ASL is predominantly used in only two continents with different versions of the language used elsewhere.

“I actually downloaded an application on my phone to help me practice,” Romero said. “I work on the same team as Graham and work on a few projects with him, so I have been trying to practice a few words with him.”

The classes, which began Feb. 3 at Whirlpool and continue to May, do not involve any grades or credits. Participants either pass or fail.

Graham Forsey, right, a business analyst for Whirlpool Corp. and co-founder of AVID, quizzes Anna Romero on Wednesday during an American Sign Language class at Whirlpool’s Riverview Campus. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

Graham Forsey, right, quizzes Anna Romero during an American Sign Language class at Whirlpool’s Riverview Campus. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

Forsey has watched his coworkers/students go from learning the alphabet and low numbers to using phrases, classifiers and reading body language/facial expressions.

“My favorite part has been watching them try to sign from the book,” Forsey said. “They have exercises and I let them try it themselves. It’s been fun to see what they can do.”

The book each student uses comes with quizzes, tests and homework. This being the first time Forsey has taught the class, he said he plans to tweak the curriculum for the next set of classes in the fall.

“We have a waiting list of about 27 people, and my plan is to advertise the class and give the people on the list the first opportunity to take the class,” Forsey said. “I have some members who have family members that are losing their hearing. I also have one taking this class who is not a Whirlpool employee, but they work with children with autism and other disabilities.”

Bill Buhrfiend, a GIS manager, said he began to look for local ASL classes that he could take independently when he discovered he would be working with Forsey. He found there weren’t any available in the Twin Cities.

Buhrfiend would go on to discover AVID and the classes to be taught by Forsey. He said the hardest part about ASL has been to memorize all the hand gestures.

“It’s definitely a challenge. All the difficulties and challenges with learning a new language are there,” he said. “I can connect with Graham better.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 31, 2016)

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