The following blog post was written by Paul Nyhan, a staff writer with the Microsoft Accessibility Blog. Paul is a 20-year journalism veteran who has written extensively about disability issues.
When Bonnie Kearney decided to take a sign language class during her lunch hour she was a little nervous. New languages didn’t always come easily to her, though she was a gifted communicator for Microsoft.
Her first baby sign language class was a little like a first date, awkward. But, Kearney was determined to embrace the course because she had year-old twins at home and was hoping to connect with them through sign. She quickly realized she wasn’t alone when she walked into a classroom full of new parents, led by a dynamic teacher who wove children’s games and songs into her classes.
“I was totally energized by it,” Kearney recalled.
Each Tuesday for the next six weeks, Kearney traveled across Microsoft’s Redmond campus and spent an hour learning sign language in one of the many free classes Microsoft offers its employees to support their professional and personal growth. The DisAbility Employee Resource Group, a community of people with disabilities at Microsoft that helps drive inclusion communication to peers, friends and colleagues, runs the babysign classes, and ASL I and II classes. These classes are among many diversity and inclusion initiatives at the company.
The sign language class certainly helped Kearney grow professionally. As she learned to sign, she saw language from a new angle and began asking questions about her job at the time as Director of Marketing and Communications for Accessibility and Aging at Microsoft. If sign was your primary language how would you think differently as a communicator? It reinforced the primal nature of communications, and how isolated you can feel if you are not able to participate in a conversation.
“There is nothing like walking for a moment in someone else’s shoes,” Kearney, who is now Director of Trustworthy Cloud Communications at Microsoft, said. “It actually made me a better employee.”
Class was also often fun, reminding Kearney that play is an important part of learning, even at a driven place like Microsoft. Instead of working on PowerPoint presentations and developing marketing strategies, the class full of professionals sang songs and played games, building a sense of camaraderie in the process. There was plenty of serious work too, learning a new language and the psychology behind it.
“It’s a good reminder that learning can and should be fun, and laughing and playing together can actually help productivity,” Kearney added.
But, those six lunch-hour classes meant something more personal to Kearney. As both a new mother and a director of marketing and communications, she didn’t really have time to join a moms group. But, her class became an informal parents group because it was full of other busy moms and dads. The one hour they shared together became a time for them to talk about their kids and the challenges of being a new parent.
“It kind of gave me permission to be a parent. You often talk about the work. This room was all about talking about the kids,” Kearney said. “Microsoft supports employees connecting as parents, and it supports employees learning about how important it is for all of us to communicate.”
While the class broke down barriers at work, it also connected Kearney at home. Within a few weeks, Kearney’s daughter was making the sign for milk and her son began learning signs for playtime and food. Together, they started reading books and singing songs in sign.
“You can’t imagine the joy in their faces when they did a sign and I responded,” Kearney recalled. “I am amazed to see how it all played out, and I am more in tune with my kids then I was due to the class and the engagement with the instructor and other parents.”