Michael Kapson had his first contact with sign language when he was a Boy Scout and learned "a rudimentary sign-language alphabet and Indian signs."
But that wasn't enough for the 23-year-old collection counselor to communicate with hard-of-hearing employee Nancy Hicks, a data-processing operator.
Like other employees in the residential loan division of Mercury Savings & Loan in Huntington Beach, Kapson had to resort to exchanging sometimes rather lengthy notes with Hicks and another hearing-impaired employee, James Braham.
Late in the summer, after Mercury Savings had taken over a new building with a large conference room, the savings institution's human resources department asked employees what type of class they might like to take in the conference room after work. It didn't take Kapson and a handful of co-workers long to come up with their choice: a class in sign language.
Since September, Kapson and 20 other Mercury employees have been meeting after work once a week for a three-hour Coastline Community College class called American Sign Language. The class was created by Coastline after Mercury officials contacted the so-called "college without walls."
Students completed the class in beginning sign language earlier this week, and now, when Kapson and Hicks communicate, it's strictly by sign language.
"I have to spell (words) quite a bit because my vocabulary is limited," Kapson said. "But now, Nancy and I take at least one 15-minute break together every day, and we often get together for lunch. We've become friends because of this class, which I think is neat. I wouldn't have known her otherwise."
Hicks, who said she was "really impressed" when she learned that Mercury would be offering the sign-language class to employees, praised Kapson's rapid progress: "Because he's interested, he picks it up fast," she said through an interpreter.
Asked whether she'd like to see more businesses that employ hearing-impaired workers offer similar classes, Hicks, 24, grinned and gestured enthusiastically: "Oh yes! Of course. Of course."
Instructor Jeannine Harris, who works as a classroom interpreter for Disabled Student Services at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, said even the best lip reader understands only about 50% of what is being said.
For many hard-of-hearing employees, she said, "it can be very lonely. They don't hear the other chitchat that goes on, and if there's not another deaf person around, they can feel isolated a lot of times, especially if the other employees are not willing to take the time to try to communicate with them."
Harris, who has taught workshops in beginning sign language for more than a dozen California police departments, commended Mercury Savings for making the class available to employees.
"I would like to see all businesses that hire deaf people do this," she said. "The communication is better, and I feel it just improves the job and the working relationship of the employees."
Harris, who learned sign language after becoming friends with several hearing-impaired students while attending Golden West College in 1970, said learning sign language is easier than learning a foreign language.
"In a very short amount of time, you can hold a simple conversation," she said. "Some people are afraid of it because of the hand movements, but once they get involved with the class, they learn to enjoy it. It's a lot of fun."
Harris didn't have any trouble capturing--and holding--the Mercury employees' attention when she stepped to the front of the room on the first day of class: She didn't utter a word. In fact, she remained speechless until the break 90 minutes later.
By using a combination of signs, gestures and some mime, Harris first instructed the students to form a large circle with their chairs. Then they got down to work.
By the end of the evening, the employees had learned how to spell their first names, they had gone over the sign language alphabet and they had learned how to say a handful of simple sentences.
Harris said of her attention-getting technique: "It kind of reverses the roles and gives them the experience as much as we can of what a deaf person experiences when they're trying to communicate with hearing people."
"Oh, that was scary," recalled Karen Hurst, 22, a teller at the Huntington Beach branch.
Wendy Phillips, a document examiner in the small business lending division, agreed.
"It was scary because if you take your eyes off her, you miss so much," said Phillips, 34. "But it was exciting, too."
Harris gave the Mercury employees their first test in early November. The test consisted of five sentences (a total of 60 words). Harris would say a sentence in sign language, and the employees would write it down. "Nobody," Harris proudly reported, "got below a C."