Human communication

The art of signing in a secure environment > Sixteenth Air Force (Air Forces Cyber) > Press room



There is an old adage that goes, “actions speak louder than words”. For an Air Force Technical Applications Center employee, certain actions are performed at just the right volume.


Le Chen, a statistician with the 21st Monitoring Squadron here, was hired in August to work at the Defense Ministry’s only nuclear treaty monitoring center. Its role is to use mathematical formulas and techniques to analyze and interpret large amounts of technical data that the center receives daily.


Chen is also deaf and communicates almost exclusively using sign language.


So how can an employee of a secure facility whose mission is considered “fail-safe” with international implications, function in an environment where few people are fluent?


“There are many ways for my colleagues to communicate with me,” Chen said. “The online email and chat features are great ways for me to send and receive messages from my peers and supervisors, and I always have a whiteboard or notepad next to me. me so we can write notes to each other.”


Chen also relies on body language, eye contact, facial expressions, posture, hand gestures, and even silence to understand the message being conveyed.

“I’m not a lip reader, but I’ve learned to interpret conversations in different ways, and I always appreciate it when a colleague tries to learn a few words or phrases using sign language, even if they just use your fingers to count. Numbers!”


Chen grew up in the shadow of the nation’s capital and received her bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, the only university in the world designed for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. From there, he earned his master’s degree in statistics from Georgia State University. According to the Maryland native, both had their own challenges.


“Signing has always been my primary form of communication,” he said. “English is my first language, so since I was in kindergarten I’ve used what’s called SEE and PSE. SEE stands for “Signed Exact English” and PSE stands for “Pidgin Signed English”.


For clarity, SEE is an exact word-for-word translation of spoken English, using proper grammar as it would be written on paper. PSE, on the other hand, is a combination of SEE and American Sign Language (ASL). Many members of the hard of hearing community (as well as non-deaf translators) use this fusion of SEE and ASL.


ASL is the predominant language in Deaf communities in the United States and parts of English-speaking Canadian provinces. It is a visual language that is expressed through hand and facial gestures. Just like any language, regions adopt certain dialects, finger spellings, and patterns in the same way certain regions of the United States have spoken accents. Southern signers tend to have a slower, more easy-going flow, while Northeasterners have faster, snappier gestures.


Chen prides himself on being skilled in all forms of sign communication.


Prior to joining AFTAC, the trained statistician was a bioinformatics specialist for the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, focusing on deafness and other communication disorders. He was thrilled when he found the opening for a data scientist at the Treaty Monitoring Center.


“I was really happy to find a position where I could use my education and apply my past experience,” Chen said. “It’s not often that you find jobs as a statistician at the level of pay I was looking for. But I never expected to work for a branch of the military that would need a security clearance!


His selection presented an interesting situation to the AFTAC Human Resources office.

“In order to take advantage of Mr. Chen’s unique attributes, AFTAC HR has redesigned the way we do business as a government organization,” said Audrey Capps, AFTAC’s Chief Human Resources Officer. “To meet the needs of a more diverse workforce, we have worked to ensure that all hiring processes are accessible to tap the potential of each candidate. We were thrilled to offer Mr. Chen the opportunity to interview us and showcase his skills without the barriers of traditional communication. The interview process allowed the hiring manager to have written communication in a live format, which was a win-win for everyone involved. »


When asked what was one of his biggest challenges as a hard of hearing person, Chen described the division that still exists within the deaf community.


“There are categories that tend to divide us into groups – small ‘D’s, big ‘D’s, signers, lip readers, speakers, cochlear implanters, etc. Unfortunately, this division tends to isolate more of the Deaf community, but I think we’re slowing down with the help of technology, social media, online apps, and education.



[Editor’s note:  small ‘d’ refers to people who typically lost their hearing later in life and do not necessarily associate themselves with the deaf community, whereas big ‘D’ refers to those who were born deaf and fully identify themselves as a member of the deaf community.]


“In other words,” Chen explained, “the big ‘D’ world has its own cultural identity, unlike the little ‘d’s, which might not have their own deaf identity.”


As an employee of AFTAC, Chen does not expect to have a full-time interpreter at his side, but knows that he may request one for certain situations, training sessions or other events that may have a impact on their professional responsibilities.


“Over the years, I’ve learned that it’s more important to build good relationships with supervisors and colleagues than with interpreters,” he explained. “Of course it’s great and convenient to have an interpreter at your side to translate what’s being discussed, but that should be the exception, not the norm. Building a network with those you work with has a lot more impact, even if it means having that dialogue in a non-traditional way.


Chen had several influential people in his life, but he credits one particular person who had the greatest impact on him.


“My father is not just a father to me; he’s my mentor,” Chen said. “He has always placed great importance on education, especially in scientific fields like chemistry, physics and mathematics. He is a gifted neurologist and currently works as a research scientist at the National Institutes of Health. He taught me that self-study is an essential skill to possess and is one of the best ways to develop a baseline that a formal education might not provide.


When he’s not crunching numbers or performing statistical analysis, Chen likes to spend his free time outdoors.


“Hiking is probably one of my favorite hobbies,” he said. “It helps me explore new landmarks and exposes me to some of the most beautiful places on earth. Before moving to Florida, my parents and I traveled to Peru to visit their national parks – Machu Picchu, Rainbow Mountain and Humantay Lake. We also visited Torres del Paine in Patagonia to see the majestic mountain peaks and Perito Moreno National Park in Argentina to see the glacier there. All were spectacular! It was a lifelong goal to see these places, and I’ve learned that I can quickly adapt to very high altitudes without getting altitude sickness or needing an oxygen tank. Cusco is over 11,000 feet above the sea ​​level, and I had no problems!


His supervisor was impressed with his work ethic and ability to adapt to his work environment.


“I am very happy to have him on the team,” said Dr. Malek Chatila, Debris Analysis Team Leader and one of AFTAC’s Diversity Team Leaders, l equity, inclusion and accessibility. “We worked closely with Human Resources, the AFTAC Security Office and Darrell Archard, the 709th Surveillance and Analysis Group Security Manager, to make the transition and treatment of Mr. Chen as smooth as possible, especially since the organization did not have the experience. in the recruitment of a deaf person.

Chatila continued, “We are making progress in securing the necessary hosting technologies for him, but the pace has been slower than we would have hoped. Although I believe in DEI&A principles, I will emphasize that Mr. Chen was selected for this position solely on the basis of merit.


Chatila also highlighted the productive and supportive role that former 21st SURS Commander, Lt. Col. Shaun Easley, played at the time of Mr. Chen’s selection, and the continued support of the current Squadron Commander, Lt. Col. Stephen Jimenez.


“AFTAC prides itself on having a highly technical workforce operating in a diverse and inclusive work environment,” Jimenez said. “Thanks to his extensive qualifications and the efforts of Dr. Chatila and many others, Le has not only been a welcome addition to the AFTAC family, but also necessary to cultivate and maintain the technical skills necessary to execute the mission. I hope his presence and contributions will help encourage and educate others, now and in the future.


October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and through a congressional declaration in 1988, it is a way to raise awareness of the employment needs and contributions of people with all types of disabilities.