Language is a Handful


I am easy to mishear.
I mumble.

And I don’t normally ask people a lot of personal questions.

This isn’t the case with my deaf friends.

In deaf culture, you stamp your foot on the floor to get someone’s attention, or so I’ve heard from my teacher, as well as friends who are a part of the deaf community — you can also tap their shoulder or flash the lights off for a moment if you want the whole room’s attention.

Finally, people who like stomping.

Asking questions about one’s family or child is common. Referring to people by their physical attributes — i.e. the fat woman, the man with big teeth — is necessary for such a visual language and culture.

American Sign Language is not the same as French Sign Language or British Sign Language. This surprised people when our teacher signed this to us in ASL 1. No, deaf people didn’t invent a universal language. Hearing people didn’t stick to Esperanto either, folks.

Ah, hearing people. Much like deaf people, they can be wonderful and they can be terrible. Also, like hearing people, deaf people aren’t helpless or in need of your help.

I’ve heard a friend tell me that while working the window at Dick’s Drive-In, he had a customer who was hard of hearing. He served him his food without too much trouble, and it didn’t take much more than a minute. Then the next customer in line said to him, “That’s annoying, isn’t it?”

No, it wasn’t, he told me. He had diabetes, and his hearing and eyesight were starting to deteriorate. Having a deaf customer is not annoying.

Another time, I signed with my friend Charlie, who originally taught me ASL. I’ve since then taken ASL 1 with Jodi Anicello. I never heard her voice once; she was expressive enough through ASL.

Charlie learned ASL through his work with Deaf Spotlight, an arts organization in Seattle focusing on deaf theater. He taught me some things wrong — I signed make as make out for months and no one corrected me! I signed with so many people!

I still learned enough to communicate with deaf people on a basic level and enjoyed it. When signing, the person signing looks wherever they want to. They’re communicating. The person “listening” looks at the person signing without breaking eye contact, unless communicating that they have to leave for a moment, or exit the conversation. Your facial expression is your tone of voice, equally imperative for effective communication.

On one occasion, Charlie and I were eating at the Broiler Bay near campus and a group of teenage boys sat down at a table near ours, and started watching us. My signing was animated and I was laughing a lot. Joking around with Charlie in ASL is one of my favorite things to do because we can say dirty jokes and discuss personal matters, and generally our conversations aren’t “overheard.”

“Can you believe this shit?” The teenagers began muttering to each other, then speaking audibly.

They became loud, but I was focused on sight, not sound.

It didn’t occur to me until I was signing about it with my ASL teacher that they probably thought we were deaf, and couldn’t hear them.

At the time, we ignored them. Anicello, however, signed to me that if I felt like telling them, “I’m not deaf,” next time it happened, that was okay.

Charlie and I don’t have to face the same problems deaf people have to face, and I didn’t learn ASL out of necessity, but to learn a new skill with a friend and to learn about the deaf community.

If you’re in ASL class, want to know ASL or want to pick it up again, or if you have free candy or know of good journalism internships, I’m your girl. Paula Phinney, who I took ASL 1 with, enjoyed practicing signing with me and other classmates for practice. We even signed with Charlie. She’s starting an ASL Club. Those interested in joining should contact [email protected].

By Nellie Ferguson,

Political Reporter