Progressive Heroes: Dan McDougall

Nov 10, 1999 at 12:00 am

"I’m all about communication," says Dan McDougall. "That’s my thing."

McDougall’s thing has changed over the years, but he has always helped people find new ways to talk with one another. As director of United Way’s Southeast Michigan Information Center, McDougall helps bring the Web to technology-challenged nonprofit organizations. Back in the ‘80s, McDougall began with a decidedly low-tech pursuit: He learned sign language just to land a role as a deaf teen in a high school play.

McDougall – who is not hearing impaired – later obtained a bachelor’s degree in sign language from Livonia’s Madonna University. Later, while working as a sign language interpreter at a Pontiac nonprofit, Dan stumbled upon a disturbing trend in the deaf community: the spread of HIV. Soon he found himself with a new job at the AIDS Care Connection office, working as Michigan’s first AIDS advocate for the deaf community.

At the heart of McDougall’s journey has been a quest for cutting-edge solutions. In graduate school, his linguistics curriculum led to researching artificial intelligence techniques. Today at United Way, he heads a project called Michigan ComNet (, which hosts Internet sites for community organizations, and teaches them how to write their own Web pages. "It’s really outside of what a normal United Way does," says McDougall with a laugh, "We try to harness stuff besides just begging for people’s money."

McDougall also directs the Michigan branch of TeamTech, a national volunteer program that puts twenty-somethings to work helping nonprofits get wired. They sign up for a yearlong stint, and receive a small stipend and money for college. "It’s sort of like being in the Peace Corps," says McDougall. In return, volunteers install new PCs, set up computer labs, and learn innovative ways to help people and their communities.

He is also on the boards of the Deaf Community Advocacy Network, and Affirmations, a local gay and lesbian community group. Plus, he hasn’t strayed far from his theater roots – McDougall is a local pioneer in the art of shadow interpreting, a dynamic technique in which sign language interpreters move around with the other actors onstage. As a result, deaf audience members can also enjoy the show.

For Dan McDougall, it doesn’t matter whether a person’s words are spoken with their hands, or delivered via a Web site on a computer screen. "You can’t separate language from people," he says. Through the fruits of his labor, that message is received loud and clear.