Dan McDougall is the chair of the Sign Language Studies Program at Madonna University, and the co-founder of TerpTheatre, a company that specializes in stage interpreting. The 47-year-old Ferndale resident has been working with people who are deaf since 1986, and he’s done training and consulting across the country.
1. How did you become interested in working with those with the deaf?
When I was fifteen years old, I auditioned for a musical in high school at Fraser High called Runaways. I was in choir at the time, and really wanted a role that would highlight my “great voice.” The play was about a bunch of teenagers who had run away from home, and each told his or her own story. During auditions, I noticed that this one character — Hubbell — has listed near a lot of the songs. It would say, “Hubbell sings” over and over. Well, I thought, “I’m gonna ask the director if I can have that part — it’ll let me show off my voice.” Well, I got the part, and it turned out I was reading the script wrong. Hubbell wasn’t singing. Hubbell was Deaf, and he was using sign language — he was “signing!”
I learned enough sign to do an okay job in the role. The story was that Hubbell was deaf, but born to a hearing family. His parents refused to learn sign language, so he ran away from home. This mirrors real life, in the sense that the vast majority of deaf people have hearing families, and very few of their parents and siblings ever learn sign language.
That experience was pretty electric for me. I was pretty diffused at the time, and that play focused me, a bit.
2. Why is it important to learn ASL?
Learning any second language is an admission that the world is larger than you and your own experiences. So, I’m an advocate for that, period. Signed languages require you to give and receive information in a completely different way than in spoken languages. You’re using the language center of your brain, but then also the parts of your brain related to vision, space, and movement.
What’s great about learning ASL is that the language is used here in the U.S. If you learn French, you’re going to have a hard time finding a large French-speaking population in the U.S. The language might be a great hobby, but your job prospects with it aren’t great here in the U.S. I’m not dogging French, mind you. It’s just that when you learn ASL, you can apply it in a variety of jobs throughout the country.
On a less practical side, the deaf community is an unrecognized and amazing culture that we have right here among us. Deaf people are constantly adapting to the hearing community – but hearing people benefit more when we take strides to reach out to the deaf community.
3. Does being gay give you any insight into the challenges of other people, including the hearing impaired?
Oh, it’s the other way around: I think deaf people gave me insight into being gay. I wasn’t exposed to diversity in Fraser, where I grew up. The deaf community – and my studies related to deaf culture – helped lay a foundation for my understanding of diversity and valuing other people. Many people have this “oh, those poor deaf people” perspective. I know some deaf people who can kick hearing people’s asses in every part of life. So, I think deaf people helped me realize that when we pity another person, we are really trying to build-up ourselves in a selfish way.
Because I am a hearing person, deaf people have also helped me to be less concerned about my ego. Oh, I still have an ego, let’s not be phony, here. But, I will NEVER be the center of the deaf community – I’m a hearing person. I hope I can do good things in the community, but I respect that I’m not the center of the community’s focus.
4. What are some of the things you do to help students get excited about learning ASL?
There has been a huge growth in interest to learn sign language, especially since the growth of online-based interpreting services. The State of Michigan projects a shortage of interpreters for the next fifteen years, so the job prospects are good.
All of the faculty at Madonna University are also people who do other things in the deaf community. Hearing people who have an interest in sign language often have no idea what they will actually do with ASL. Our faculty are involved in linguistics, interpreting, and a host of other local activities, and I think that students enjoy seeing their professors in action.
Many students come to us based on one specific exposure they have had to ASL or the deaf community. They often have one objective in mind. I really enjoy watching students become more aware of the rich variety of experiences in the deaf community, and to seeing them broaden their view of their future. It’s essential that we also help hearing students understand how to be an important part of the deaf community without being inadvertently oppressive.
5. What other projects are you involved in, and what can you tell us about them?
I have a long history of performing on Michigan stages as a ‘shadow interpreter.’ Shadowing is a special style of sign language interpreting for the theatre: Instead of being placed off to one side of the stage, we rehearse with the cast and move around the stage with them. Since 1986, I’ve been involved in hundreds of productions, and now am co-founder of a company called TerpTheatre. In addition to our work on stage, we fly to other parts of the country to teach our technique to other interpreters.
This year, we are producing our first play, called Police Deaf Near Far. We are hiring two professional deaf actors – one from Los Angeles and one from New York – who will work with our cast of hearing actors from Oakland University. The show is many years in the making, and we’re excited for its Michigan premiere, Oct. 4-14. In addition to producing, I am also one of the on-stage shadow interpreters for all performances.
6. Is there anyone who has influenced you on your path?
I wish I could write a country song to describe my husband, Jim Routhier. When we met, I was married to my ex-wife and my life was crazy. I didn’t realize how crazy it was at the time. Looking back, I can’t believe he stayed around!
We met at Affirmations in 1990. In 1991, we had our first commitment ceremony, in a one-room schoolhouse with a bagpiper playing “Oh, Danny Boy” outside. It was officiated by a rabbi-friend of ours, and was attended by ten people. We celebrated our anniversary in 2003 by getting married in Canada (different rabbi and a judge with a fancy necktie). Jim and I have been beside each-other for all of these years, enjoying our mutual evolutions along the way. We are in constant motion, but I often stop for a moment and get all weepy over how much I love him.
To paraphrase from “Rob Roy,” he is so fine to me, this Jim Routhier.