After I finished ringing up a customer’s groceries, I turned to the next person waiting in line.
“Hi, how are you doing today?” I asked. The customer didn’t respond initially, which I thought was odd, but not too out of the norm. There were plenty of instances of customer’s completely ignoring my attempts to be polite, so I carried on.
“Would you like a bag today?” I continued. This time, the customer pointed at their ears, shook their head, mouthing the words “I’m Deaf”.
I had learned some American Sign Language in elementary school and had refreshed my memory on the ASL alphabet in middle school after reading a biography on Helen Keller. But at that moment, I realized I didn’t remember any of it, and finished the transaction with exaggerated hand motioning.
I felt some guilt in that moment. I thought about how often Deaf people must go places and have no one able to communicate with them, and how frustrating, isolating and unfair that must be.
I signed up for my first college-level ASL course not long after that interaction. I relearned the basics of sign: the alphabet, colors, animals,simple things, like how to ask one’s birthday and age. I didn’t know any Deaf people in my personal life, so I’d practice by teaching my friends and family signs I learned.
The first time I had a Deaf customer come in after I’d started my class, I excitedly signed, “Hi! I learn sign.” ASL doesn’t use articles and some prepositions.
I watched the customer’s face light up and she smiled as she signed back, “You learn ASL where?”
We continued our very simple sign conversation, but as my knowledge of sign grew, I began having more detailed conversations with people. I would notice a customer using lot’s of hand gestures, and my coworkers, clearly confused, trying to assist them. I was now able to step in and sign, “You need what?”
As I began to recognize the various members of my local Deaf community at work, I quickly made connections with them. My favorite customers are a Deaf couple who regularly come in and make it a point for me to practice my sign. Now that we’ve established a connection, they approach me every time they’re in the store, asking how I am, how my family is and about school. When our conversations end, they part with the sign for “I love you.”
Prior to my ASL course, I had never heard of Gallaudet University, the world-renowned college for students Deaf and hard of hearing. I learned about the history of the Deaf community, including their oppression, which was met with by the Deaf power movement. Unbeknownst to me, there was a whole movement and oppression in America’s history that had never even been spoken of in my educational history.
ASL and Deaf culture should be taught in our country. Not only will it allow for us as a society to better embrace, support, and connect with the 48 million Deaf and hard of hearing individuals in the United States, but ASL provides benefits for hearing people as well.
From as early as 6 months old, babies can learn to use sign language. This far precedes the expectations for verbal language in infants, allowing them to communicate with their parents at an earlier age. This can be especially useful for children with autism and Down syndrome.
Studies also show that teaching children to sign boosts their reading abilities. Children who were in environments where they learned ASL at a young age read at a higher level and their vocabulary is improved 15% to 20%. Though studies done on the benefits of learning ASL mainly focus around children’s long-term cognitive abilities, learning a new language is always beneficial to one’s brain
Oftentimes, the medical community embraces the cochlear implant and encourages speech for Deaf or hard of hearing people, as an attempt to assimilate Deaf people into the hearing society, a controversial issue in the Deaf community.
Though many hearing people are unaware of this ongoing debate in Deaf culture, this is a huge issue for the community. For example, when a Deaf baby is born to hearing parents, many times the parents will encourage the baby to learn speech, even though they’re Deaf. They may get an implant and never learn to sign.
Though they are able to communicate and function in the hearing world, there is still a disconnect and isolation for them in the hearing and Deaf community. The parent has good intentions and wants their child to be able to be a part of their hearing world, but in turn, deny their child the ability to be a part of a culture and community of people who will truly understand and embrace them.
The Deaf community doesn’t see their lack of hearing as something in need of curing. Many Deaf people when asked if they could be hearing, said they wouldn’t want to. Deafness is more than not being able to hear—there is an entire community, culture, and history behind it, though it is one rarely spoken of in hearing education.
As hearing people, we should be the ones making the effort to communicate with Deaf people. Learning to sign has been one of the best decisions of my life. Though I only was able to take ASL I and II, I have the basics for conversations. In the future I do want to take more courses to solidify my knowledge of ASL.
Not only is it incredibly eye-opening to learn about a culture and life outside of your own, but it is an extremely rewarding language to learn. To be able to communicate with different types of people is an incredible tool. It means so much to them, and to me, to form that connection.
If you’ve been looking for a “sign” to learn ASL, this is it. Next term make sure to add a sign language class to your course list, and watch your world of language and understanding expand.