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Work: Stephanie Cramer Helps Deaf Bhutanese


Stephanie Cramer - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Stephanie Cramer

Name: Stephanie Cramer
Town: Waitsfield
Job: Sign language interpreter

Stephanie Cramer has made a career out of learning new languages. And key to mastering any language, whether spoken or signed, she says, is cultural immersion. After graduating from college with a major in communication disorders, Cramer learned American Sign Language by living and working with deaf people for almost a decade in Washington, D.C., and Boston.

"It's really important to know how to talk about everything, from life to death and everything in between," says Cramer, who grew up on Long Island, N.Y.

In 1998, Cramer moved to Vermont and became a certified sign language interpreter. Since then, she has worked with IBM (now GlobalFoundries), the University of Vermont and the UVM Medical Center.

In the past three years, Cramer has developed an unusual specialty: working with deaf Bhutanese refugees. Demand for her services is so high that she no longer works with American-born deaf people.

When Cramer started learning Nepali Sign Language, she took the same cultural immersion route she'd taken with ASL. She went to stores with deaf Bhutanese. She organized cooking classes for the women. "A lot of them told stories about leaving Bhutan," says Cramer.

She's still not proficient in Nepali Sign Language, Cramer says, but she can use a mixture of it and ASL with her clients, who are learning the latter. She took time out from her busy schedule to speak with Seven Days.

  • James Buck

SEVEN DAYS: How did you pick up Nepali Sign Language?

STEPHANIE CRAMER: I worked several months with a man who was a Bhutanese refugee. He worked in the [refugee] camp, and he was a teacher for the deaf. When he came to the U.S., he was a spoken-language interpreter for English and Nepali. Then people realized he knew sign language. The hospital and other services would team the two of us up often to work with the families, so he would teach me a lot of Nepali sign.

I also started going to some classes with the deaf Bhutanese individuals who were learning American Sign Language, and [I] learned Nepali signs from them.

SD: What are some similarities or differences you've noticed between the U.S.-born and Bhutanese deaf communities?

SC: The way one gets a deaf person's attention is the same. The way [deaf parents'] children are with them is really sweet to watch. The children don't yell or cry. They wave at their parents, or they go over and touch them, or they will literally turn the parent's face to look at them with their little hands.

The role of family is very different. Deaf Americans live independently. But family is so important in the Bhutanese community. Most deaf Bhutanese people live with their family members.

The expectations of people who are deaf are very different in the U.S. versus people coming from Bhutan. [The refugees] weren't allowed [to drive] in those communities in Bhutan and Nepal. When there are deaf events [here], it's typically some place you need to drive to.

There needs to be some education in the American-born deaf community about this new community and about cultural differences. Some of those differences create barriers [that prevent] the American-born community and the foreign-born community from interacting with each other.

  • James Buck

SD: How has the lack of formal education in Bhutan affected the deaf refugees' language acquisition?

SC: I had met a woman who used Nepali Sign Language who is from Nepal and grew up in the schools for the deaf in Nepal. Her language is very different from what I've seen from the refugees.

What I've noticed is, a lot of the individuals are not using a lot of grammar when they're signing. There's a critical age of language development, and that [was] missed, because in Bhutan there were no schools.

In American Sign Language, we set up the tense first. We'll say "yesterday," and then we'll tell the story. So you'd know [that] what I'm talking about happened already.

I noticed those markers are missing [in refugees' signing]. I always have to dig deeper to find out more information. [I ask,] "Is this something that happened in the past in Nepal, or in the near past? Is this something you want to happen?"

SD: Have there been instances in which you found yourself doing more than interpreting for your clients?

SC: For over a year, we were trying to tell a mother, "You're not allowed to hand-feed your child. He's old enough [to feed himself] now." And the mother would say, "OK, I'll try."

Then it hit me one day while I was interpreting. If you grew up in a refugee camp [and] were given rice and a few staples, would you feed [your children] the way Americans do — by sitting them in a chair and putting a bunch of food out and letting them eat whatever they want, whenever they want?

I asked for a moment from everybody to stop the conversation. The mother said, "Everybody in Nepal feeds their child until they're 5, 6, 7 years old. I'm not going to let my child go hungry if I can hand-feed him myself." I shared with the team what the mother said.

SD: Are you training anyone else to work with deaf Bhutanese refugees?

SC: I have given workshops to both hearing and deaf interpreters in the area. I think they would like some more training in Nepali sign. Right now, I'm working with Northeastern University on a grant that they have to train interpreters to work with atypical sign language users. Northeastern has a huge deaf studies department.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Learning the Signs"