Visual arts for the deaf

Laurie Williams is teaching her Louisiana School for the Deaf students an old vocation in a modern way. She is helping students in Career and Technical Education learn skills that can prepare them for careers in graphics and printing.

LSD has a long history of training students for careers in printing, an industry that has traditionally been popular with deaf workers who are generally able to tolerate the noisy workplace created by industrial printing presses. “Printing has always been a strong industry for the kids,” Williams said.

To keep up with changes in the printing industry created by the computer and modern technology, the late Monita Hara, then school director, acquired a $50,000 grant in the summer of 2010 to purchase equipment and technology to modernize the school’s graphics and printing program.

“We have recently really refurbished or redone this program,” said Williams, who is determined that the kids learn the new technology. “We used to have a room of offset presses. Now we have just two. I really believe that offset printing is not going to be a 50-year career for the kids.”

What Williams does have is a roomful of state-of-the-art computers, printers and graphics equipment to teach her students not just standard flat printing but a variety of digital printing methods to make banners, cards, awards, cellphone covers, lanyards, Christmas ornaments, printed clothing, dog tags, mugs, license plates, water bottles, trophies and all sorts of projects with economic potential.

“We can now do sublimation printing, where the ink goes from solid to gas and never becomes a liquid,” Williams said. With a special printer that does this process, the ink does not smear. Students can transfer color onto plastic, paper or fabric to make a variety of different items such as cellphone covers.

Williams tries to select high-interest projects that the students will enjoy while learning. “We are trying to get real, employable skills,” she said. “We don’t want the kids to leave here and be stuck.”

This month, the students made laser-engraved Christmas cards, which they sold to LSD staff members to earn money to buy supplies to make Christmas gifts in their classroom.

“Whatever I can think of, we try it,” said Williams, who just completed her 15th year at LSD. She came to Louisiana after 19 years at the Nebraska School for the Deaf, where she taught woodworking and furniture-making.

“I wanted to teach blind kids from the time I read a book in the sixth-grade,” she said. Williams taught herself sign language and started interpreting for the deaf when she was in high school. “I thought that I would major in English in college, but then I realized that by being in the vocational department, I could teach reading, English and history and not have so many papers to grade,” she said with a laugh.

Nancy Benham, the present director of LSD, is also committed to the program and Career and Technical Education. In her proposed budget is a new piece of ultraviolet equipment that will allow Williams’ students to print on foam board or slick-coated paper.

Williams and the students in her graphics classes do much of the printing for the school. In a recent Graphic Arts I class, Michael Stilley made several Christmas cards for the sale. Malakia Gowan worked on signs for the school cheerleaders to hold up at games. Paige Watson did screen printing on a T-shirt, and Caitlin Convento printed a poster.

The students say they love Williams’ classes. “I am crying because in only two weeks I will be done with this class,” Convento signed.

The classes are for high school students. Williams lectures by signing. “Deafness is not the problem. We can get around the deafness,” she said. “Language is the problem. Language is their primary handicap. Because of the language difficulty, I get some high school students who read on the second- or third-grade level. You can get third-, fourth-, fifth- or eighth-graders with only 50 words.”

Even though many of the students have limited vocabularies, their projects can reflect the creativity that their words cannot. “They can be very creative and not language bound,” Williams said. “The kids can imagine it and make it.”