She flickers the lights on and off to garner her class’ attention. Her hands flutter like birds as she signs back and forth with her students. When students have time to practice with their partners, she scrolls through the computer and signs to herself.
Bianca Masilowsky is an adjunct professor of American Sign Language at Saint Peter’s University. Her coveted, six-credit class is only offered once a semester and consists mostly of students who receive priority registration, such as athletes and honors students.
But there is something that sets Masilowsky apart from the 17 other language professors at Saint Peter’s. Her students and coworkers can hear, and she cannot.
Masilowsky lost her hearing at 11 months old. My class was silent as she half signed, half wrote on the board her story of going deaf -- the seizures, the high fevers and her mother alone and unsure of what to do with her sick baby.
The cause was Spinal Meningitis, a disease that should have killed her, but instead left her “profoundly deaf on both sides,” according to her audiology report.
“I can hear better with my left than my right ear. I use a hearing aid to help me recognized some sounds,” said Masilowsky in an email interview. “I can hear low pitch more than high pitch.”
In a sense, Masilowksy considers herself fortunate in a way, because she doesn’t remember a time where she wasn’t Deaf.
“I am content the way things are now. I have been deaf all my life,” said Masilowsky. “I do not feel I missed anything at all.”
Growing up in Montgomery County, M.d., Masilowsky went through the public schools system and had access to programs for Deaf or Hard of Hearing (H.O.H.) children.
“I had the opportunity to attend classes where my teachers use sign language and interpreters were provided in the mainstream classes,” she said.
After high school, Masilowsky attended Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., the only university in the world that specifically accommodates Deaf and H.O.H. individuals. There, she received her “M.A. degree on Teaching American Sign Language [A.S.L.] as Foreign Language.”
Masilowsky also splits her work week between two other schools besides Saint Peter’s. She teaches at the College of Staten Island (C.S.I.) and at Montclair State University (M.S.U.) right after her class at Saint Peter’s on Tuesday’s and Friday’s.
“I like teaching and share information with people. A.S.L. was one of my favorite subject to teach,” said the instructor of 12 years.
But how does a Deaf person communicate with a hearing person who doesn’t know A.S.L.? I wondered that question as I warily picked my fall semester courses. Truthfully, it is much easier than one would think.
Masilowsky’s expressions tell her stories for her. Her face lights up when she’s excited and it sinks when she’s teaching more serious words such as ‘toxic,’ ‘liar’ and ‘abuse.’ It also helps that she mouths every word that she signs -- sometimes she whispers just loudly enough for us to hear.
Her sentences when typing are sometimes broken, as A.S.L. does not use the same structure as the English language. For example, ‘I want coffee to drink’ would be ‘Me want drink coffee’ in A.S.L.
Her 2-hour and 45-minute long lectures are lively and interactive. Most of the work consists of sentence structure and partner work, and I suspect she picks topics that encourage discussion.
She also includes conversations about Deaf culture, and affectionately gave all of us ‘name signs’: handshapes and motions that are unique to a person’s name and personality. She also filled us in on the story about her first name sign -- a fluttering of her hand down her head -- and how it was chosen for her long, curly hair. This sign changed after her friend cut all of her hair off as a child.
Despite living in a world that’s almost silent, Masilowsky sees “no difference” in her day-to-day life.
Her cats and vibrating alarm clock wake her up in the morning, she takes public transportation and lip reads when communicating with others. She watches movies with subtitles and ‘listens’ to music by feeling the beats (Taylor Swift is one of the artists that she likes). At night, she takes her hearing aid out when she sleeps.
“I sleep good,” she signed to my class when I asked her how she woke up in the morning.
When she isn’t teaching, her free time is spent the same as anyone else’s.
“I like to spend my free time watching movies, go to different restaurants and try new foods, socialized with my family and friends, and love to attend historical places, museums and national parks,” said Masilowsky.
Despite the “changes on acceptance and accessibility” since she was younger, Masilowsky believes that society still has further to go with its’ accommodations for Deaf and H.O.H. individuals.
“We do need more access with more interpreting services (especially specific field-related) available for Deaf/H.O.H. people,” said Masilowsky. “I would like to see more live captioning available during breaking/emergency news or live interpreter.”
Saint Peter’s only offers one Intensive A.S.L. course per semester, but Masilowsky said she’s open to teaching more classes if more students express interest in enrolling in more or even pursuing a minor.
When there’s approximately 1 million people in the U.S. that are deaf, according to the Galluadet website, learning A.S.L. is one of the many ways to seal the gap between the hearing and non-hearing world. Masilowsky is hoping to be one of the forces to bridge that gap.