More Than Just a Beautiful Language

Today I asked my Instagram followers: What’s something you want to learn more about? I was hoping for some secondhand inspiration for myself but I noticed a recurring theme amongst their responses…

I have been hesitant to speak on behalf of sign language/d/Deaf people and their culture because I do know my role as an interpreter is to simply facilitate language and not teach it. But I guess thousands of people keep watching my videos and that sort of counts as a platform where I can shed some light on this wonderful world I get to be a part of for a living.

First and foremost the videos I make and the signing that I do are for my deaf and hard of hearing followers. I am not a native ASL user so I’m the first to encourage people to seek out Deaf artists who interpret music in ways beyond my skills (Matt Maxey is my favorite). The volume of hearing people who have reached out saying “your videos are why I started taking classes” is an added bonus though. If you’re one of the many hearing people who have inquired about how you can learn and if I can teach you: no I can’t teach you but I’ll add some information at the end about your options beyond my little hands.

You asked why I am so passionate. I’ll start with some statistics. How fun, I know.

• Over 90% of deaf children are born into hearing families. Of those families, 88% of hearing parents do not know sign language. Think about that. If your parents couldn’t fluidly communicate with you… lonely, right?

• Deaf/hard of hearing children experience neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse at a 25% higher rate than hearing children. Oh, and the severity of that abuse is often correlated with the severity of their hearing loss. I know this statistic to be true on a personal level in my professional experience.

Did you know deafness is the most common “birth defect”? And still, an astonishing amount of parents don’t consider learning sign language?

But Amy what about cochlear implants? Doesn’t that fix the deafness?

First of all, no you can’t fix deafness. Also just one more fun fact, the University or Chicago surveyed 20,000 implanted deaf folks and nearly half of them stopped using their cochlear implants altogether by adulthood. Why? Because they don’t always work. Spoken English isn’t a safe bet for every child.

So now we’re back to my original point: why am I so passionate? There is a massive population of children who are slipping through the cracks.

I always wanted to work with kids and the English language. That’s what my undergraduate degree was focused on: English education. I learned ASL throughout college but it was my first Deaf Culture class that made me feel driven to work with those kids… the ones dealing with an oppression that most people don’t even know is happening.

It’s more than just a beautiful language. It’s a culture with a rich history. You know Alexander Graham Bell? The telephone guy? Did you know he successfully discredited sign language and had it banned for 100 years? He believed in oralism – all Deaf children using spoken English. He believed in it so much that he closed Deaf schools and mandated that children be punished for using sign language. This resulted in a century of deaf children signing to each other in private to avoid getting their hands slapped. They kept the language alive in secret until the 1960’s.

I poke fun a lot at the people who have asked me if I, a sign language interpreter, am also proficient in Braille. I’ve had to actually explain that the Deaf community and the Blind community are separate entities but don’t get that confused with the DeafBlind community because I have love for them too. But then I realize how ignorant I must sound to a computer programmer when I try to figure out how to change my URL or how to make my page a continuous scroll. So anyways I thought I’d address some more common misconceptions or frequently asked questions:

• No, sign language is not universal.

• Not all deaf people read lips.

• Whether or not a deaf person uses speech is a personal choice with several factors that play into it.

• Staring at people who are signing is the equivalent of eavesdropping. We/they know you’re staring. Introduce yourself. Don’t make it weird.

• Deaf people can drive. They can also become neurosurgeons if they want to.

• Some deaf people enjoy music. Heavy drums and strong bass provide vibrations and paired with interpreted lyrics or subtitles, they experience music in a different way but a way nonetheless. I previously mentioned Matt Maxey. He’s Deaf and interprets rap music and it’s way better than anything I’ve put out.

Last but not least, for the people who’ve asked for resources or tips on how to learn:

I will always push you to seek classes at your local community college or university taught by a Deaf person. That’s your best choice to learn quickly and clearly and at the highest quality. If that’s not financially or physically possible for you, check out these resources that have helped me out:

⁃ TheASLApp

⁃ SignLanguage101

⁃ LifePrint

Thank you for reading! I’ve been meaning to write something like this to make my readers more aware of my day job and the importance that this language plays in the lives of the people I work for. It’s not just a beautiful music enhancer. It’s a culture. One last thing- any question you may have about the language itself, replace “ASL” with “French” or something and see if it answers itself.

I.e. “Does ASL have slang”

“Does French have slang”

Yeah, probably.

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