by Natalie Hormilla
When Jan Caswell was growing up in Derby Line, she had no idea what sort of career lay in her future. Now, after 40 years of working with deaf people in a variety of ways, she’s created a book that introduces American Sign Language and deaf culture, entitled Hand Artists.
Ms. Caswell said she basically fell into working with deaf people.
“It’s given me a career for 40 years, and I have met some people who are just fascinating,” she said in an interview with the Chronicle.
After graduating from North Country Union High School’s second class, in 1969, Ms. Caswell went to the University of Connecticut. She said she thought she’d return to the Northeast Kingdom, but took a job at the Austine School for the Deaf in Brattleboro, on a lark.
“I needed a job and I wanted to be back in Vermont,” she said. The job was to be a dormitory counselor at the Austine school.
“I lived in a separate house with 25 girls between the ages of 16 and 21,” she said. All the girls were deaf students at Austine.
“I was like the big sister,” she said.
Ms. Caswell was 22 years old at the time, and had no previous experience in sign language. She was told she wouldn’t need to know sign for the job.
“That was too scary,” she said.
As luck would have it, Ms. Caswell knew a returning senior at Austine who lived in Newport. Ms. Caswell asked to borrow the girl’s yearbook, and taught herself how to letter spell each student’s name so she would at least have an entry point for conversation once she got to Austine.
Ms. Caswell picked up American Sign Language very quickly once she got to Austine.
“In six weeks, I was fluent,” she said.
“It was hands-on the minute I started.” Ms. Caswell said the girls would try to tell her dirty jokes in American Sign Language.
“I wouldn’t understand them. I’d sign, ‘slow,’ ‘again.’”
That job marked the beginning of a lifelong love for signing. Since then, Ms. Caswell has worked as the Vermont state coordinator of services for the deaf, as an educational interpreter in California, as a vocational rehabilitation counselor for the deaf in Massachusetts, and she even worked as the interpreter on Madeline Kunin’s gubernatorial campaign, among other things.
“I’ve done everything you can do — I think.”
She said that she is sometimes mistaken as being a deaf person, rather than a hearing person.
Ms. Caswell said that her kids really encouraged her to publish a book after learning that she had written some stories, just for fun.
After she wrote the book, she used the online funding platform Kickstarter to gather money for publishing expenses.
Kickstarter allows for people from just about anywhere to donate to a project, whether because they know the project creator or they just think it’s a cool idea.
Ms. Caswell said that she raised most of the $6,600 she needed through Kickstarter. Donations ranged from $5 to $500.
“People donated from all over: Alaska, Nova Scotia, British Columbia, California, Oregon, Arizona, Vermont, Connecticut, Florida,” she said.
She said some people who weren’t at all connected to her or even the deaf community donated money.
The donations were helpful because, as Ms. Caswell put it, “I’m not going to make millions. It’s really a work of love.”
Ms. Caswell brought on a late-deafened woman, Stephanie Labrie, to be the illustrator.
“Steph had never done anything professionally before,” she said.
Ms. Labrie used watercolor pencils, which allow for colors that are deep and bold.
“When you take a 3-D language and put it on a 2-D page, it’s extremely difficult,” Ms. Caswell said.
Hand Artists is a very colorful book that tells the story of Kyleigh, a deaf girl, and Erin, a hearing girl, who are best friends. American Sign Language is interspersed throughout the pages. The discerning reader will learn the signs for different letters, numbers, and even words like “story” and “goal.” The illustrator used curved arrows to indicate the hand motions needed for more complicated signs.
“It’s an opportunity to learn a little bit about sign, but it’s not something to ‘teach’ sign with,” Ms. Caswell said. “It’s meant to introduce it.” The book is also meant to be an introduction to deaf culture.
“My friends who are educators said it’s most likely for five-to-ten-year-olds, but older kids can benefit, too,” she said. “It’s meant for whomever, or for hearing people who want to learn a little more about sign.”
Ms. Caswell said that about a dozen teachers, from Ontario, Canada, to western Massachusetts, have ordered the book for their classrooms.
Ms. Caswell lives in western Massachusetts, but she said she still considers Vermont her home, and visits her parents in Derby Line often.
Hand Artists is available at Wider Than the Sky in Newport, the Woodknot Bookshop in Newport, Barnes and Noble, and amazon.com.
contact Natalie Hormilla at [email protected]