Minnesota Deaf Heritage Oral-Visual Interview with JaNahne “Jan” McCready-Johnson
This interview with JaNahne “Jan” McCready-Johnson (JMJ) was incorporated into the Commission of Deaf, DeafBlind, and Hard of Hearing Minnesotans’ (MNCDHH) Oral-Visual History Project. This interview was originally produced by the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services Metro Division (DHHSD) of the Minnesota Department of Human Services. This interview took place in 1997. The interviewer was Robert “Bob” Cook (BC).
A note about translation of this interview: The interview was recorded in American Sign Language (ASL). The interviewer and interviewee used ASL as a first language, and the signed information was translated into vernacular or spoken English by interpreters.
This transcript and the open captions in the video are based on the spoken English information.
Actions are in brackets. Translation notes are in parentheses and italics (using the emphasis font), and they represent additional information and corrections about what was said.
Transcript of Interview with JaNahne “Jan” McCready-Johnson
Key to names:
JMJ = JaNahne “Jan” McCready-Johnson (signs in American Sign Language, voiced in English by interpreters)
BC = Robert “Bob” Cook (signs in American Sign Language, voiced in English by interpreters)
[Visual of title graphic “Minnesota Deaf Heritage: An Interview with Jan McCready-Johnson”]
[Robert “Bob” Cook is sitting with JaNahne “Jan” McCready-Johnson for the interview.]
BC: Hi my name is Bob Cook, and I am thrilled to be interviewing our special guest today. Her name is Jan McCready Johnson. She is one of the few leaders within our community and I now have the opportunity to interview her. Here’s Jan. I’d like to ask you a few questions. Could you first tell us about your experience growing up?
JMJ: We suspect that I was born Deaf, because my parents have had no Deaf family members in previous generations. We believe it is genetic. I was born Deaf, and I do have an older sister who is Deaf. She is about three and a half years older than I. We have another sister who is hearing. So my oldest sister is Deaf, the middle sister is hearing, and I am the youngest, and I am also Deaf. When I was five, I attended and eventually graduated from the residential school for the Deaf in Faribault (Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf – MSAD). I then went on to business school. You want more? You mean everything up until now? OK after residential school, I went on to business school, which was a nine-month course. It was very frustrating for me as there were no interpreters at that time. So I would need to pay particular attention to the teacher by reading their lips, and if they turned their head away, I was completely lost. After class was finished, I would always need to approach the teacher to ask questions and receive some extra help. The last three months of classes were all lectures. Can you imagine having to speech read all day, every day? So, I decided to quit, despite the protest from Vocational Rehabilitation (VR). But, it was not worth my time and they finally gave in. The VR staff took it upon themselves to look for work for me. I was not given the opportunity to look for myself, which I had I wanted to do. But, my mother encouraged me to let them go ahead as I was to be married soon anyway. I worked for four months and then quit because I didn’t like it. I stayed home for two or three months to prepare for my wedding. I needed to make my wedding dress and take care of other details. Then I got married, and right away I started having children. Nine months after the wedding we had our first of four children, all of whom were born one right after the other. All of them were hearing. We thought perhaps that some of them might be Deaf as my husband and I were both born Deaf. But, as it turned out, all four were hearing.
BC: Wait a minute now. You had four children. Were they boys or girls?
JMJ: In order they were boy, girl, boy, girl - just perfect. Anyway, I worked part-time selling Tupperware and I think that helped me discover who I really am. I was still selling when I heard about a job at St. Paul TVI (Technical Vocational Institute) – that’s the old name. I wanted to apply to become a teacher’s assistant for sign language (ASL). I had been teaching some sign language and it was very fascinating for me. I was interviewed and offered the position. It meant that there would be a great deal of travel across eleven states in the Midwest. Later on, a very sad thing happened. My husband passed away, and of course, I needed to support my children. After two years at TVI, I was promoted to a teacher’s position and have been there ever since. It later came to be called Technical College. I have been there now for twenty years. Actually it will be twenty years on the day of your retirement, November 22, did you know that? It will be my twenty-year anniversary. I really enjoy my job because it is never the same old grind. Things are constantly changing and there is always room for improvement and it never becomes boring. It gives me the opportunity to be creative. I had actually thought I would just become brain dead from teaching. But I’m not. I really enjoy teaching a great deal.
BC: I’d like to interject if I may. You mentioned your husband. Was he hearing or Deaf? How did you meet?
JMJ: You mean my first husband? Yes, I met my first husband at the residential school when I was twelve years old. He was teasing me by saying that I had gotten an F on an English test. He said “Yeah, I saw your name. You got an F. You failed. I saw it.” And I responded by saying “No! I did not!” And when I walked out the door, my heart fluttered. I was only twelve and he was seventeen. We were just kids. I prayed and prayed every night for two years that he would fall in love with me. When I became fourteen, I, of course, had matured by then, we did fall in love. We were together for five years until we married.
BC: Now Rolli, was he hard of hearing or Deaf?
JMJ: Yes, he was Deaf. He had some hearing and was able to talk because he was raised orally. He transferred down to the Faribault school when he was around ten or eleven years old. So he really is considered Deaf though he can hear some. Then later on, after he passed away, I met another man who is also Deaf, so both of them were Deaf.
BC: So, how did you meet your second husband? I don’t mean to be nosey, but I am curious.
JMJ: Well it was very interesting. My second husband’s name is Neil. Neil lived in Maryland and came for a golf tournament. There was a boat ride as part of the tournament and there were a great number of Deaf people who attended that event. I did see him briefly at that time, but we were not introduced. It was much later when a group of our friends piled in the car to go to the bar. They had asked Neil to come along, and I had no idea who he was. I got in the car and went to close the door, but Neil grabbed the door. I thought to myself “How arrogant.” I went ahead and moved over and we just kind of looked at each other. In the back of my mind I was thinking, I wanted him to hurry up and say his name. Finally I thought “to heck with it” and went ahead and gave my name. We then continued tossing insults back and forth. We did eventually fall in love, though initially I didn’t want to. I still loved my first husband a great deal. I had thought that I could really like this man, but love him, not possible. But my sister said to me “You have more room in your heart for another man.” I needed to let go and then was able to fall in love. I thank my sister for that advice that she gave me, because we have been together ever since.
BC: You have a Deaf older sister and a younger brother, where are they now?
JMJ: I forgot to explain. There were the three of us, and then eight years later by brother was born. So there is eight years between me and by brother. My younger brother lives out in Maryland right now. And has a really good job working for MCI with the Relay in new marketing position. He is a very busy man and travels quite a bit. At one point, the Relay had been being monitored by hearing management and they were rather lackadaisical. My brother, however, is much more fussy. He wanted to make sure that all the needs were met satisfactorily. He is a very busy person and he works twenty-four hours a day. Well not actually twenty-four hours a day, but he is working seven days a week. They hope to find more people to start in junior positions so his hours of work can be reduced. But, he is able to deal with it for now as it is only temporary. He has worked at MCI for four or five years. My oldest sister lives in Washington. She was a classmate of yours, wasn’t she? Yes, she lives in Washington State. She and her husband are divorced and she lives on an island near Seattle. She seems to be OK. I saw her at the recent NAD (National Association of the Deaf) Convention. She was home for a week, but I was only able to see her for one day. She doesn’t have one specific job. She teaches ASL in several places and is involved with her church.
BC: I understand you are extremely active within the Deaf community. Could you share with me how you first became involved in D.E.A.F. (Inc.) and about your presidency within that organization and also your presidency of ASLTA (American Sign Language Teachers Association) and other organizational involvement? How did you become so immersed in politics?
JMJ: Well when my brother moved East, he had been very involved in politics. I did not want much to do with it. That was more his forte. When he moved, I thought “there is no one else to do it.” D.E.A.F. had a vacancy on their board, and I decided to become a member of that organization. My brother, and you, as well as several other people were the ones who founded D.E.A.F. I wanted to see that program continue as strongly as it has been, and so I became involved. Things just kept coming up, and things would happen, so it got to the point where I just couldn’t leave. I didn’t want to leave until an issue was resolved, but then another issue would come up. It’s been about eight years now that I have been on the D.E.A.F. board. I am beginning to wean myself out of that board position. I would like to see it continue as the strong organization that it is. Let’s see, what else – oh yes, ASLTA. I was feeling very frustrated, as there was no organization here in Minnesota to help teachers teaching ASL. Then the National ASLTA organization was established. We thought “Why not set up a Minnesota Chapter here?” The officers were encouraging people to get involved, but people were noncommittal and the local organization began to fold. I assumed the responsibilities as president to get things going. And so far, it has been doing quite well. We need to do some public relations to get the word out here in Minnesota about this organization. Our PR efforts have been pretty weak. We have to let people know that we are here. That is my goal for ASLTA for now.
BC: Speaking of ASLTA, I remember when I had completed residential school, ASL was just ASL. Now it’s such a hot topic, courses are offered everywhere. Actually, you roped me into taking your class. I really need to thank you as I was able to learn about what ASL really was about and about my own language. I got involved in teaching ASL classes and giving presentations on ASL, so I owe you a debt of gratitude. Now you are working at St. Paul TC with the Interpreter Training Program. You are teaching and helping students in their study of American Sign Language, as well as expanding the ASLTA. Now to get back to the Interpreter Training Program. To start with, things were a bit awkward in that first year and there have been improvements over time. What do you wish for the program?
JMJ: It’s very interesting. My first experience was teaching while using my voice. I used to voice and sign at the same time saying words such as “mother” and “father.” Then in 1977-78 I went down to Chicago to hear about new research which had been done on ASL. I felt a little stunned. They were talking about how ASL is a “true language.” I had been brainwashed my whole life to feel that ASL was just “bad” English. My way of thinking began to change as I became aware of so many new things. That is when I decided not to use my voice anymore when teaching. Do you remember the first training program was six weeks long? We found more time was needed. At that time, there was no Deaf awareness and information was very basic. Just teach them some sign language and send them off. But as Deaf awareness became more important and more ASL research was done and Deaf culture became more apparent, we realized that six weeks was not enough. That is when they made the change to a six-month program, which still was not enough. With continued research by the Conference of Interpreter Trainers, we knew that we needed to improve the student’s skills and needed yet more time. The program continued to expand and we now have a two-year program, and we still feel that is not enough. One strength is that there is an ASL prerequisite prior to entering the program now. In the past we taught ASL and then interpreting in our program. People coming into the program now need to be skilled in ASL, maybe not completely fluent but conversant in the language. In the future we think there will be prerequisite testing which must be passed at a required level of skill before they come in. We are debating that right now. But, we will hopefully see improvements as we proceed. That is why I love my job so much, because it is never the same old thing. We always recognize that there is a need for improvement and I really enjoy that, because it is a continual challenge for me and the other people within the program as well.
BC: You have been here for twenty years. Do you feel that the time flown by, or are you still playing catch up to the goals that you set?
JMJ: Well, I will never stop because of the information and the research that goes on. For example when we were teaching ASL, or signing, we would teach sign vocabulary only. Many teachers would be using their voice. Then the students would come and their receptive skills would be no good as they would be relying on the voice. Research showed that the teachers must be turning off their voice. So the new curriculum “Signing Naturally” was much better for receptive skills development and facial expression which was very similar to what Deaf individuals would use. One weakness was vocabulary; there was not enough. There was everyday vocabulary and conversational skills, but for interpreting students, they must know a lot of government terms and other more complex and in-depth vocabulary. This meant that we needed to be teaching additional vocabulary. That is one frustrating part within our program when using the “Signing Naturally” curriculum. But, we have noticed that students have become more comfortable with their facial expressions instead of being so stone faced. You could see the change. I am sure that we will find things that need improving, and we will improve. You can never stop improving the program.
BC: I bet. In retrospect, it’s inspiring to see sign language or ASL, total communication, SEE (Signing Exact English) 1, SEE (Signing Exact English) 2, L.O.V.E. (Linguistics of Visual English), cued speech and other various modes of communication. What is your perspective on that? Would you share some of your feelings? Do you support certain models and what are your reasons, as it relates to a child’s developing English skills within the educational setting?
JMJ: Well with SEE signs, I have a bit of a bias. With cued speech I feel that children must have a strong language base first. They cannot have cued speech as their first language. They need to have an understanding of the language, and then for me, it could be used as a supplement for their English, but not to be taught as a language. I am against that. Let me see, another one, oh, yes, the L.O.V.E. sign system. That has kind of been phased out. SEE 2, there seems to be a little bit of that still remaining but I think that too will be phased out. I just don’t think a lot of people are comfortable with that. Some of those people who use SEE signs have problems with their wrists, because it is not designed for the comfort of the hands. ASL is designed to be very natural movement for the hands. The unnatural movements of the wrists, with all the twisting motions, may cause some problems. That is why you should watch and learn from Deaf individuals, and not just create your own signs. I feel that is not right. Making up signs is upsetting because Deaf people have suffered a great deal and fought very hard for our rights. We put up with it and now Deaf children are putting up with it. The oppression continues. I think that enough is enough! I want to see ASL accepted and go on from there. We don’t want to go back to the dark ages. I feel that cued speech is part of the oral system. It feels like we are back-pedaling at times.
BC: This is my last question. As a young girl growing up you witnessed society’s view of Deaf people, you lived through years of frustrations... just as I did. When you look at it today, what do you see? Have there been great improvements or very little improvement? Give us your perspective.
JMJ: One of my pet peeves is that a lot of people don’t want to change. If change is needed, make it happen. But some want to maintain the status quo. They are very resistant and don’t want to face it. When in the residential school, I grew up in frustration, like you, and fear, a fear shared by many of us which is why we were so passive. Then I worked for TVI, and I was very negative with the students. I was approached by a co-worker and told that I must not be so negative and that I should be more positive. I did some self-analysis and realized that the residential school had trained me to have this negative perspective. So the residential schools need to become more positive. I can’t remember when in the residential school a Deaf student ever being praised for their small successes. It was always ignored! My brother wanted to be the first to go to NTID (National Technical Institute for the Deaf) after he graduated from the Faribault school. The teachers were not happy with that, they wanted him to go to Gallaudet. My brother was extremely successful, but no one praised his work. And that is something that really needs to be done. They need to change their way of thinking and look at the positive side of each and every person’s successes, and applaud those successes. I don’t feel that we got enough positives from people, and it is the same with Deaf people today in that they do not have enough positive role models. They need to change their way of thinking to create a more positive outlook. I would like to see that continue as it is really important. Especially within the schools whether they are residential or mainstream, the important issue is that of avoiding the negativism and not continue teaching them to fear. That’s my feeling.
BC: Thank you very much for your time. Thank you to our audience for tuning into our interview with Jan McCready-Johnson. Let’s give her a nice round of applause.
JMJ: Thank you.