DANVILLE, Ky. (AP) - What started as a degree in accounting at the University of Louisville eventually led Kentucky School for the Deaf graduate Max Williamson back to Danville as an educator.
“My goal was to own my own business, but I got involved within the deaf community, especially the blind/deaf community, as a volunteer,” Williamson said.
He began working at the Sign Lab at University of Louisville, which was through Eastern Kentucky University, as a satellite campus.
“A good friend of mine said, ‘You know, you would be a really good teacher,’ and convinced me to become involved in the immersion program,” he said. “After that involvement, I really enjoyed working with students and see that I could do this . so I decided to go into the interpretive training program myself.”
He graduated from U of L in 2010 and decided to pursue a master’s degree at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.
“Initially, I was only planning on getting a bachelor’s degree,” Williamson said. But, that plan changed when Gallaudet set up a master’s level pilot program for teaching American Sign Language. “I went to Gallaudet, took those courses, graduated with my master’s and then Eastern invited me to join their faculty to teach.”
There, he found a passion.
“I absolutely love (teaching). When I see a student’s success, I feel successful,” Williamson said.
He now teaches at EKU’s Richmond and Danville campuses and contributes via video conference at Murray State University.
Additionally, he believes he’s having an impact on the community.
“Because we do have such a large deaf community, I feel like I contribute . by having more people in our community be able to communicate.”
Case in point, Williamson said one of the American Sign Language students shared with him and fellow teacher Linda Bozeman how she had been able to communicate with a deaf customer while working at Lowe’s.
“She was excited, and she indicated that the customer was excited that she was able to communicate with one of the clerks there through sign language,” he said.
From day one, students in the American Sign Language courses at Danville have to use sign or gestures to communicate with all of their teachers. That works fine for Williamson, as he himself is deaf.
“It’s not tough to teach hearing students, I really love that challenge. Some students pick (language) up quite readily, other students have a more difficult time. Depending on the students, some students are able to pick up sign language naturally - they can pick up any language more naturally than others,” Williamson said. “The challenge for me is always trying to figure out a student who’s not ‘getting it.’”
Figuring out why someone is not “getting it” is a specialty of Williamson’s. He is the fourth of five generations of deaf individuals in his family.
In addition to his personal experience, Williamson has had education and experience in working with individuals who are deaf and blind. While in school, he was able to complete an internship in Seattle, working with The Lighthouse for the Blind Inc., which provides employment opportunities for individuals who are blind or are deaf and blind.
However, he wants to learn more. That’s why Williamson will start work on his Ph.D. at Gallaudet this fall. Specifically, he hopes to focus on pro-tactile, which uses touch to give feedback to an individual who is deaf and blind.
“(Hearing individuals) have the ‘m-hms’ and the ‘uh-huhs’ and the head nods. In ASL, we have that same thing - we’ve got eyebrow movements and facial expressions that indicate, ‘yes, I’m following you.’ But when you’re deaf and blind, No. 1, you can’t hear that feedback channel, and No. 2, you can’t see that feedback channel,” Williamson said. “This pro-tactile information to deaf and blind individuals engages them in the conversation.”
After finishing his Ph.D., Williamson hopes to continue teaching, either at the graduate or undergraduate level, to “give back to the community.”
“They’ve given a lot to me,” he said.
Currently, the ASL classes at Eastern are two-fold, Williamson explained. They include classroom time, which is a combination of lecture and sign, and introduces vocabulary to students. Then they have the lab time, where they get to practice their signing. Students can choose to pursue a degree in deaf studies or interpretive training but would have to travel to Richmond to do so.
Williamson credits his fellow faculty in the American Sign Language and Interpreter Education department at Eastern for helping to push him to pursue his doctorate. Beyond the school, he also notes the support of his family, specifically his parents, and a friend, Jessie Clark, for supporting him throughout his education.
“They were very instrumental in having me finish my education and encouraging me to go on and finish my master’s,” Williamson said, noting that Clark would watch his house and even his two dogs while he was at school.
“Not everyone that’s deaf can be an interpreter, any more than anyone that can speak English can be an English teacher,” Williamson said.
In the beginning, Williamson said, he never expected to go so far. There were times, while in school, he admittedly faltered, but persistence and support helped him finish. Now, he is excited to pursue his doctorate, so he can help more individuals. Ultimately, he wants to highlight the values of having deaf interpreters, something that is uncommon around the nation.
“I typically teach both the hearing and deaf community the value of having a deaf interpreter, helping with oppression issues, helping with reducing misunderstanding in the community,” Williamson said.
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