Cathy Wilson Brings Sign Language to Tehama County
By Melissa Mendonca
By Melissa Mendonca
Photo by Erin Claassen
On any given semester at Shasta College’s Tehama campus, the American Sign Language (ASL) classes taught by Cathy Wilson are consistently full, with many students choosing to advance beyond the beginning general education language requirement to a higher level of mastery.
Wilson, who has been signing since the mid-1970s, knows the world expands for both the deaf and hearing when people can sign. She teaches like her daughter’s life depends on it.
“My first daughter was born deaf in 1972,” says Wilson. “Profoundly deaf. And I didn’t find out until she was about 8 months old. That’s when my journey began.”
Thankfully, the journey began just as the deaf community was emerging from what it refers to as the Dark Ages—a period in history when sign language had been banned in educational settings and the Oral Method was the only method used to teach deaf students. “A lot of deaf people felt inferior. They didn’t have the education and the opportunities that they do now,” she says.
While she says, “my first perspective was that it was a tragedy,” raising and advocating for Robin gave a direction to Wilson’s life that has allowed her to impact lives far beyond her family and to open opportunities for many more deaf students.
“My daughter entered the school system as they were bringing sign language back into the classroom,” says Wilson. Robin became one of the first students of a speech therapist in Tehama County. “That was my first exposure to sign language,” she says. Without it, Wilson and Robin struggled to communicate with any depth or meaning.
When, at age 5, Robin became a resident student at California School of the Deaf in Berkeley, Wilson says sending her back to school after weekend home visits became excruciating. “When Sunday came around and we had to leave her, we didn’t have the language to tell her what was going on.”
Two years into the residency, both Robin and Wilson had enough skills for Robin to communicate a dream she had. In it, she was able to walk amongst strangers, touch them and communicate with them. They would smile at her and be at ease. She went through the dream touching people and garnering smiles. The dream was so beautiful and profound that Wilson says she finally understood, “all of this life that she had in her that she couldn’t get out, that she couldn’t share, until she had language.”
This kicked her into gear to make Robin’s dream come true. “That moment, thinking that it was a tragedy turned into a lifelong dream,” she says. Deepening her skills in ASL and sharing them with others brought more opportunities not only for Robin, but other families of deaf children.
“I had a triple reason to do what I do,” she says: help Robin, help other deaf children, and help other parents of deaf children. “Getting the language, I find, for parents is the most important thing.”
Her first sign language class was taught as a community interest class at a local elementary school in Tehama County. “Seventy five percent of the people were there for one little girl,” she says.
After substitute teaching for five years, Wilson was hired by the Tehama County Department of Education in 1988 and is now the supervisor and coordinator of interpreter services, having developed a rigorous training program for educational interpreters. “Tehama County was one of the first counties to do the interpreter leveling system,” says Wilson. In 2009, it became a state mandate that all educational interpreters be level 4 or higher.
Wilson is a local test administrator, working for Boys Town in Omaha, as one of the state-accepted testing programs. “I’ve had people as far away as Florida, Alaska, Texas, Arizona,” she says of her test takers.
With such a robust interpreter program, Tehama County has become known as a deaf-friendly community. Wilson knows a mom of two deaf children who moved to the area for the educational services. She has more than a few stories from deaf people encountering her former Shasta College students around town and being offered help or better customer service because they were able to sign.
Now 45, Robin is married and has moved to Modesto. Wilson has received recognition as Classified Manager of the Year from the Association of California School Administrators and is beloved by students from kindergarten to college for her teaching and advocacy.
“Every time I think I’m going to be retiring,” she says, “I think of Robin’s dream. If we would have had this kind of program when Robin was little, she would have stayed home. I would have tucked her in every night.”