Mass. firefighter learns ASL to better communicate with deaf and hard-of-hearing victims

Mass. firefighter learns ASL to better communicate with deaf and hard-of-hearing victims

May 22, 2007
By Lisa Redmond, 
Lowell Sun (Massachusetts)
Copyright 2007 MediaNews Group, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

NASHUA, Mass. — Kyle Labrecque admits he hated high-school Spanish so much, he dropped the course after only a few months.

“I just didn’t like it,” he admitted.

But years later, Labrecque, an eight-year veteran Nashua firefighter/EMT, decided to learn a language some say is the most difficult of all to learn: American Sign Language.

“It’s one of those things I wanted to do before I die,” the 36-year-old Nashua resident said.

He embarked on an intensive sign-language program after he went on a medical call last summer and the 6-year-old daughter of a deaf woman ended up being a translator between emergency personnel and her mother.

“I had no idea what she was signing and what her mother was telling her,” he said.

In the past, Labrecque has responded to a handful of calls that involve deaf or hearing-impaired people.

“It’s frustrating,” he said. “The deaf community has no other way of communicating besides sign language, so if I want to get medical information about my victim, I should know their language,” he said.

It is unusual for a firefighter/EMT to learn sign language, unless there is a hearing-impaired or deaf person in their family Labrecque said. The Nashua Fire Department has a handful of personnel who have learned sign language, most for personal reasons, he said.

Labreque shelled out $150 for a sign-language class and book at the Adult Learning Center in Nashua. He is now on his second, six-week course that meets once a week for an intensive 2 1/2 hours. There are six levels.

What makes learning a language difficult for Labrecque is his age.

A child absorbs language like a sponge. But Labrecque joked that at his age, “the sponge had dried up.” He said, “My goal is just to understand it.”

For a man who fights fires and saves lives, Labrecque said learning sign language is difficult. It is physically demanding and learning the nuances of the language is tricky. One sign can represent many words and signs differ depending on which spoken language you are signing.

Sign language in English is different from sign language in Japanese. In Japan if you show the middle finger and then tap it, it means father.

“It’s fun to learn, but it’s hard,” he said. “I’m French, so I talk with my hands anyway,” he laughed.

He jokes that at this early stage, if he encounters a deaf or hearing-impaired person, he signs, “Slow down, stupid hearing person signing.”

Although he is the butt of jokes in the firehouse when he practices, Labrecque said his fellow firefighters admit they are impressed by his hard work.

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