Adjunct instructor Michele Rolewitz may walk away when someone yells for her attention, but it’s not because she’s being rude — it’s because she can’t hear.
Rolewitz was born deaf. Throughout her life, she has practiced communicating in a hearing world. At MSUM, she attempts to help others do that as well, by teaching American Sign Language classes.
Rolewitz, who also works in student financial services at NDSU, went to a school for the deaf while growing up. There, she was surrounded by deaf people and learned ASL.
“At the deaf school, it was deaf students,” she said. “Some of the staff were hearing, and they just signed.”
However, because her immediate family and some of her friends can hear, Rolewitz was exposed to some communication barriers at a young age. Her family knows a lot of sign language though, she said, as her grandparents were both deaf.
“I spent time with both hearing and deaf people. My family was hearing, and I had hearing friends. I taught them sign language growing up,” she said.
‘The real world’
After graduation, Rolewitz attended college at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, N.Y. From there, she moved to Fargo for her job at NDSU.
“I was very lucky to get that job, and I’ve been working there ever since,” she said.
Rolewitz said it was a challenging transition — she had always been somewhat surrounded by deaf people through school, but at her job in Fargo, everyone can hear.
“I grew up at a deaf school. I was around deaf people. My friends are deaf. I grew up that way. The staff knew sign language. And now, here in the real world at my job, I don’t have that. There are no deaf people,” she said.
However, Rolewitz has had only positive experiences when trying to communicate with people who can hear but don’t know ASL.
“I work with hearing people, and it’s fine. We get along. We write, we lip-read and we can overcome it. I’ve taught the staff some signs,” she said.
“Sometimes it’s hard,” she said. “If there’s a new worker who comes in, then it’s awkward for a little bit. But after I know them, then it’s fine, and we get along. After we work together every day, we understand each other just fine, because we’re all the same.”
When she first meets someone who can hear and doesn’t know sign language, Rolewitz said she feels it is important to be patient. Even outside of work, Rolewitz hasn’t had many negative experiences with hearing people, and she credits a lot of this to patience.
“Deaf people are good with people. We’re patient. If you have paper, we’ll write back and forth. I’ll try to talk a little bit, but some deaf people don’t talk at all. It really depends on the person. Sometimes I’ll just text the question and show them my phone,” Rolewitz said. “Most of the time it’s not a problem. Most people don’t have any problem with me.”
About 15 years ago, Rolewitz started teaching at MSUM. She is also married, with two children and grandchildren, all of whom can hear.
What hearing people may not know
“Deaf people are kind of invisible people,” Rolewitz said.
“You don’t know that someone is deaf. You can go up to them and start talking to them, and you wouldn’t know that they can’t hear. You’d start talking to them, and they’d end up just walking away.”
This is one reason she encourages people to learn more about ASL and deaf culture.
Some hearing people ask if deaf people enjoy music, Rolewitz said. Some do and some don’t, she’ll answer, it just depends on the person.
We can’t hear the sound of music without hearing aids, but we can feel the vibrations of it,” she said.
Another question Rolewitz is often asked is if she can drive.
“Some people think that deaf people can’t drive — even still today, people think that — but deaf people can. Really, deaf people can do everything,” she said.
‘A visual language’
Many people also don’t know that ASL is more than just hand signs, said Rolewitz. It incorporates a lot of facial expression. For example, when asking a question, such as “who are you?”, Rolewitz said she would have her eyebrows down as part of ASL, to signify that it is a “who” question; for a yes or no question, she would raise her eyebrows.
“If I’m saying that I’m happy, I smile. If it’s a surprise, my eyes get wide. I show that with my face,” Rolewitz said. “The body language is very important too. And eye contact, all of it incorporated is very important.”
Between learning ASL and English, some may consider deaf people to be bilingual. Rolewitz said she wouldn’t call it that, because the two languages are so interconnected, but they are also very different.
The grammar is different in ASL than in English, for example, Rolewitz said the English sentence “I will go to a store after class,” would be structured in ASL as “Class finish. I go to store.”
“ASL is the first language and English is the second language, because signing is the primary form of communication,” Rolewitz said. “It’s a visual language. English is our written language.”
If more people knew ASL, Rolewitz thinks the communication barriers would be fewer.
“I really urge people to learn ASL and to learn about deaf culture,” she said. “There’s more than you know.”
Michele Rolewitz’s interview was interpreted by Alicia Strnad.