Deaf grad finds his calling at FVCC

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Cristie Gunderson, left, translates sign language for her cousin Justin Kauffman during a presentation on proper deaf etiquette on Monday. Both Gunderson and Kauffman will graduate from Flathead Valley Community College on Friday night and plan to transfer to Idaho State University to study interpreting.

Justin Kauffman, 21, found more than a good education at Flathead Valley Community College. He found his calling to help other deaf students break through the sound barrier to pursue their dreams.

“I decided that’s what I really wanted to do with my life,” Kauffman said as interpreted by American Sign Language Instructor Toni Cancilla. “I love it.”

Kauffman graduates Friday from FVCC with an associate of art degree that allows him to transfer to Idaho State University in Pocatello. He blazes a new trail as the first deaf student at ISU to enroll in studies to become a certified deaf interpreter.

“It’s a pretty big thing,” he said with a smile.

Originally aiming at architecture and interior design, Kauffman heeded the observation of Cancilla and others that he had a special talent he could use to help lower-functioning deaf students.


His switch to interpreting was solidified after serving as an intermediary for a fellow student struggling to understand her interpreter during lectures.

“I saw a huge improvement with her — she understood better,” he said. “I’ve felt that same struggle and frustration myself.”

Cancilla, a veteran of nearly 30 years using American Sign Language, said she was stunned at the difference it made with Kauffman relaying her signing to the other deaf student.

“Even if he uses the same signs, because of the deaf-to-deaf interaction, they get it more clearly than from me,” she said.

Before choosing Idaho State University, Kauffman considered attending Gallaudet University, the nation’s only institution founded to serve the deaf and hard-of-hearing. He decided that Washington, D.C., was too far from family and too different from the rural lifestyle he enjoys.

Kauffman admits to a little nervousness about becoming the first deaf student in the program at Idaho State University. But he has spent a lifetime overcoming challenges as a person determined not to let his disability shut doors in his life.


A native Montanan, Kauffman grew up in Kalispell. He doesn’t remember a time when he or his sister Jeanette, also a student at the community college, could hear.

“We’re the only deaf members of our entire family,” he said. “We have a close connection — we’ve always been together.”

At 13, Kauffman attended the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind in Great Falls. After graduation, he spent a year at the College of Technology in Missoula, which proved a bad fit because he felt distant from his instructors.

“I think it’s good when teachers really know their students and what they’re capable of,” he said.

Kauffman found Flathead Valley Community College, with small class sizes and friendly students, exactly suited him. He said he was able to better understand with the quality interpreters provided to him and the seven other deaf students.

“I think this is one of the best schools ever,” he said. “It was a big change. It really changed my perspective.”

Even in small classes with qualified interpreters, Kauffman said deaf people face a steeper learning curve than most people realize. First, they share limited resources with six interpreters trying to cover all the classes of eight students.

Just the process of interpreting signing adds another layer to the cognitive process.

“When you listen with your eyes, it’s delayed,” he said. “It’s harder to get the point.”

Kauffman said watching the signing makes note-taking almost impossible. To compensate, deaf students have note takers or sometimes professors provide their notes.

These accommodations can create a false impression with other students, Kauffman said.

“Most people think that deaf students have it easier, but we really have to work twice as hard,” he said.

During energetic class discussions, three or four students may speak over each other, creating a very difficult situation for the interpreter and Kauffman who wants to see speakers to pick up more visual cues.

“I’m not able to read lips well — I’m kind of OK but not really good at it,” he said.

Contrary to popular belief, he said, even the best lip readers catch only about 30 percent of the words because so many look the same. So far, technology has failed to create an effective device to replace the interpreter.

Kauffman said he has tried using a piece of equipment called a UbiDuo — two keyboards and a screen — but hated the experience.

“I’d rather have a novice interpreter,” he said.

On campus, Kauffman has gone out of his way to help and encourage students in Cancilla’s American Sign Language Classes. Cancilla said he and another graduating deaf student, Amber Lang, often attended beginning classes to let her students practice interacting with them.

“These two really made themselves available — to have their culture surround my students,” she said. “The key is to be with the deaf.”

Cancilla said Kauffman has inspired at least one new student to become a certified deaf interpreter. Two other graduating students, Kauffman’s cousin Cristie Gunderson and her fiancé, Nick Potratz, also are transferring to Idaho State University to study interpreting.

Gunderson grew up signing with Kauffman and his sister but Potratz found that he has a natural ability after taking Cancilla’s classes for a year and a half.

“His major is political science so he’ll have a double major,” she said. “He’s going to become a legal interpreter — very few become legal interpreters.”

Cancilla said the Flathead Valley has a huge need for more interpreters as many from the baby boomer generation retire. Her program has grown from just two classes to nine in the eight years that she has been teaching.

“I’d like people to know that we established a transfer program for deaf interpreting with ISU,” Kauffman said.

He said that Idaho offers in-state tuition rates to transferring Montana students.

As Kauffman moves on from FVCC, he left his mark by establishing with Cancilla “Flying Hands,” a small group that performs sign language to music. They modeled it after “Expressions of Silence,” the signing choir with which Kauffman performed at Montana School for the Deaf and Blind.

Kauffman also broke new ground at Flathead Valley Community College as the first deaf person to try out and win parts in theater productions. He performed in both “Grease” and “Cabaret.”

With Cancilla signing and using body movements, Kauffman was able to “see the music.”

“Most people —  when I tried out for ‘Grease’ — didn’t think I’d make it because I couldn’t hear the music,” Kauffman said. “I love dancing and I love music.”

At Idaho State, he hopes to open more doors into deaf culture by establishing a club similar to the one at the community college that brings deaf and hearing students together for social events and community service.

“It gives more deaf experience for people in the hearing community,” he said.

After college, Kauffman intends to move east to larger deaf communities where he can use his skills as a certified interpreter to help people who don’t have his gifts as a communicator and advocate.

“I want to help them fight for what they want to do so they’ll advocate for themselves and be bold,” he said. “Sometimes people need a push from someone in their own culture — seeing that, if I can do it, they can do it too.”

Reporter Candace Chase may be reached at 758-4436 or by e-mail at


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