Listening Without Ears: Adventures in American Sign Language
Since I was a kid, I’ve found myself stuck at least once a year with a sore throat and respiratory virus that left a pad of paper and a pen as my only form of communication. Every year, I wanted some nonverbal way to communicate with my family, some way to get a point across faster than pen and paper, yet more personal than texting or having Vicki read dialogue via iSpeak. I found American Sign Language (ASL) through my community college and my hands have been busy ever since.
Maybe it wasn’t actually a better way to communicate with my family (they don’t sign and get annoyed when I do), but what started as something entertaining and potentially useful opened up my world to a different culture and different people. It’s been a couple of years since my last class, but I remember a good amount — especially the “fun” words. Like any language, those are the ones that you learn first and remain when the rest have faded away.
One thing instructors of ASL point out at the beginning is some signs are really close to others. It’s a difference of a single finger to go from “It’s nice to meet you,” to “It’s nice to have sex with you.” When I had my first ASL conversation with a deaf person, I almost signed the latter at the very end. Almost. Horseshoes and hand grenades, right? It’s not really a mistake. Not like finger-spelling someone’s name to try and get their attention. Y’know, because they can’t hear it and have no way of knowing what you’re signing if they’re not looking at you? Who would even try to do that? No one, obviously. Certainly not me. Definitely not me.
ASL does that: it shows just how much a hearing person relies on their ears. There was an assignment called “Deaf for a Day,” and it’s what it sounds like: go somewhere public in groups and pretend to be deaf for four hours or more. My group wore earplugs to try and remind us that we weren’t supposed to react to sound. We stood together in line outside the entrance to the Wild Animal Park. After five minutes of sign language, we felt like animals. Some guys even made fun of us and mocked us with hand gestures of their own: no one tried to stop them. For most of the day, the rest of the staff handled us pretty well. That is, apart from the slushy employee who actually told us that he thought we were pulling some sort of prank and apparently hadn’t seen a deaf person or sign language before. “You guys must have lost your voices yelling or something,” He’d say to each group member as they came up to place an order via a text on our phones.
At one point, we were near where visitors could feed the giraffes. Credit card in hand, I figured that it wouldn’t take much more than that to get an acacia leaf or two: money is a universal language. Unfortunately for me, the animals weren’t close enough to feed and the keepers tried their best to dissuade my approach. “Sorry, they’re not close enough.” Before she finished speaking, I shook my head while pointing to my ear. They looked at me like I’d just posed an insurmountable riddle. I understand that a lot of people assume that deaf people can read lips, but not everyone can. “The giraffes aren’t here, you can’t feed them.” She repeated. I walked away, disappointed that they didn’t at least try to gesture. I was told later that they’d stared at me the whole way down the path.
The best person we met turned out to be someone who wasn’t even supposed to work with people. As we walked up a path to the soon-to-be-expanded tiger exhibit, one of the surveyors spotted us and our signing. He came over and, through gesture, put us each in the exact right spot to see the cat. He never spoke a word.
Most people that I encounter don’t sign — I learned ASL when I lived in Southern California and far from the deaf communities there. As a result, there’s a magical little way that it tends to bring siblings together: it’s a great way to point out attractive people without their knowledge. The first sign that I taught my sister was “cute;” we used it all the time. One girl in my class was at a Starbucks with her sister and a guy that was far too handsome walked through the door. She tapped her sister on the shoulder and signed: “<He’s CUTE.>” Her sister looked him over and nodded. The man, upon picking up his drink, turned to them, put his hand to his chin, and tipped it out: the sign for “thank you.” Their jaws hit the floor.
When I first started to learn sign, I expected blunders in language. I expected James Bond moments, like what happened in that Starbucks. I expected it to be fun, useful, but at some points obscure. I didn’t expect just how much it hangs on. I didn’t expect a whole new culture to go along with the language, or that I’d end up cringing when someone called deafness a disability. I didn’t expect to look for deaf characters in shows more, or get excited when they had their own comics. I didn’t expect to get so excited when I see someone signing on television, because I know what they’re saying. I didn’t expect to look insane at the gym because I sign along to whatever song’s on my iPod (USE IT OR LOSE IT, GUYS; USE IT OR LOSE IT.) In looking for a new form of communication, I found a new form of self-expression…along with a way to figure out what Gibbs and Abby are saying on NCIS. That’s important, too.
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