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Breaking Down Barriers

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Joanne Coffin-Langdon: Teaching American Sign Language

Joanne Coffin-Langdon  
Joanne Coffin-Langdon

Many people could not imagine being deaf and teaching a room full of hearing students. Joanne Coffin-Langdon, more commonly known as Jonie, is the only full time deaf faculty member at UMD. She has been an instructor of ASL for the last twelve years.

Coffin-Langdon teaches American Sign Language (ASL) level one and level two and is the only instructor to teach level five. In the first few weeks of class, she uses an interpreter to help the students get use to her signing. “This is a great challenge to students,” she said. “It gives them a greater respect for interpreters and their job.”

Coffin-Langdon enjoys teaching the students and watching their growth through the program. “I think it’s fun to watch the students have their ‘Ah ha!’ moments where everything clicks,” she said. “It is amazing to see how many students keep with it. Their confidence in ASL changes and grows in the two and half years from ASL level one to the end of the program.”

The ASL program has been part of UMD since the mid-1970’s. In 2008, the university added a new minor called deaf studies. This minor is the only college level program of its kind in Minnesota. “Through having the program, UMD has made a good relationship with the deaf community,” Coffin-Langdon said. “They have given a lot of accessibility and accommodations to the deaf community. UMD also has been very thoughtful in the development of their program.” The minor is a growing program. Each semester, more and more students get involved.

Although Coffin-Langdon enjoys teaching, being an instructor in this setting can be difficult. “It can be very isolating to be deaf in a hearing world, because you spend most of the time reading lips,” she said. “My free time has to be planned out a week or two in advance. I can’t just pop into a lecture, because I have free time. I need an interpreter there, so I have to plan it out.”

Deaf people may wear a hearing aid to help them, but it can catch only about 65%-85% of sounds and only 30%-45% of conversational speech. This percentage also may change on their percentage of deafness.  A common myth about the deaf is that they can all read lips and understand everything being said. Lip reading can be very difficult, because only 30% of English can be read on the lips.  

Coffin-Langdon grew up in Germany. “I wanted to move for a while,” she said. “There were issues with access and availability of any form for deaf communication.” She had read in a magazine about a deaf pastor who was a professor in the Twin Cities. Both were things she was very interested in doing. 

At the age of 18, she moved to the United States and participated in a Deaf International program in the Twin Cities. “My eyes were opened to a whole new world of equality and deaf pride,” Coffin-Langdon said. “Here we were treated as equals and through the American Disabilities Act got to live normal lives.” The Americans with Disabilities Act ensured civil rights to many people with disabilities.

After graduating from college, Coffin-Langdon taught in public schools in Minneapolis. Seventeen years ago, when her partner got a job in Duluth school system, her family decided to move. “My family had been through Duluth many times driving to Ely and Grand Marais to go camping,” she said. “At the time we were living in Plymouth, and I was teaching kids with emotional and behavioral disorders at a Minnesota disability respite.” She worked in the Duluth public schools for a couple of years, and then eventually found a job at UMD.

Coffin-Langdon is very hopeful about the growth of the program in the future. “Learning ASL helps breaks down the barrier between deaf and hearing,” Coffin-Langdon said. “I think this program will attract more deaf students to UMD, because they will have people to talk to and they won’t feel so isolated.” As this program grows, it is helping bridge the gap between the deaf and hearing communities. Through her teaching, Coffin-Langdon is facilitating the connection between these two different cultures and helping the bond grow.

UMD: Those Who Can, Duluth


Written by Katarina Menze, February 2013

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