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Archive for the ‘Equal Communication Access’ Category

As a Deaf person, I have been teaching American Sign Language (ASL) for around forty years, starting when I was still a student in college. I’ve taught at various locations since; including community education programs, public and private schools, and an Interpreter Training Program at a local community college.
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But in recent years, with the onslaught of technology and the social network, I have taken my teaching on-line: I am the administrator of two private Facebook groups that focus on the learning of ASL and the development of signing skills. One group is geared towards beginning level students learning the basics; the other focuses on advanced students seeking language models to help enhance their understanding of the more complex aspects of using ASL.

With the recent development of my Beginning ASL Studies group, I put out an announcement and extended an invitation to persons I knew who might be interested in joining. It was easy enough to find such individuals: over the years I have had plenty of people come up and tell me how they’ve “always wanted to learn sign language.” Or friends who tell me how they “really want to learn how to communicate with you better.” I guess I am even more exposed to such than some Deaf people are, because I do have the oral skills that allow me to communicate with hearing people on a more frequent basis. I’m often in situations where I am the sole Deaf person interacting with hearing people – such as on the job. I am the only Deaf person at my place of employment. 

So when I informed some of these individuals that I was creating a Facebook Group designed to help them study and learn ASL, naturally they got excited, and several asked to join the group. Soon I had a nice little group, and we were ready to begin, starting from scratch with the manual-visual alphabet. After posting a video showing how to sign your ABC’s, I then informed the group that they needed to create and post their own videos showing themselves signing the alphabet. They were given several days to complete this assignment.
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A week later, nearly half of the members had already left the group. 

Maybe I should have been more clear upfront before they joined, but I certainly made it quite clear within the first few days: this wasn’t just a fun, dinky little group where you could come and go as you please, and learn sign language at your own pace – this was essentially an on-line classroom. There would be lessons, there would be assignments, and they would be expected to participate.

In short, they would be expected to DO THE WORK. Learning ASL isn’t a walk in the park…it requires time, effort, and commitment to learn. 

Apparently they didn’t have that time, didn’t want to make the effort, and weren’t willing to commit themselves.

Ouch.

Yeah, I am disappointed. I try not to be, but damnit – it does hurt. Maybe because I know these people and thought they cared enough to want to do the work. Then I discover that like so many others, it’s all just empty talk.

What distinguishes the non-commiters from the folks who actually “walk their talk?” What does it take for a person to decide that s/he is actually going to make that time, make that effort, make that commitment?

And how do we who teach ASL – or even just those of us who depend on it for full inclusion – handle the harsh reality that sadly enough…most of the world doesn’t want to learn? Oh, they might give lip service to the desire, but what they are really saying is “I wish that I *knew* ASL, but I don’t really want to have to bother with learning it. Or if I am going to learn it, I want it to be on MY terms.”

Certified Deaf Instructor with years of experience be damned; it seems any time you teach a class, you get those students who expect you to sign slow, use your voice, let them turn in assignments whenever they get around to it, and basically make it easy on them.

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Oh sure…we get all kinds of apologies and explanations: “I’m a public school teacher and we’re nearing the end of the school term.” “I’m a social worker who travels over two hundred miles weekly to serve my clients.” “I don’t know how to make and post videos to Facebook in order to complete assignments.” “I’m just really super busy right now and I wouldn’t be able to keep up.”

As if THEIR jobs, THEIR responsibilities, THEIR time was more important. 

Never mind that one of my Deaf Mentors for my group is himself an employee of the Public School System, and I work closely with the schools myself – and we are feeling that same end of the school year crunch. Never mind that I drive 50 miles round trip per day to get to and from my job. Never mind that we all struggle with and bitch about the hassles of making and posting videos to Facebook. Never mind that we all have jobs and responsibilities and lives outside of this group.

Never mind that it takes me time to run this group, oversee its activities, plan and post lessons and assignments, provide feedback, coordinate and conduct evaluations, and basically keep the group going AND DO IT ALL FOR FREE…

Sigh. I am trying not to let it get to me. Obviously I am failing.

Yeah, maybe I do take it too personally. Maybe I do need to remember that “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Maybe I do need to remember that while everyone might support the concept of Equal Communication Access, not everyone is going to be willing to take the effort to make that a true reality.

So what can you do???

I began with venting to a friend of mine. Like myself, he grew up the only Deaf person in an all hearing family, attending hearing schools. Like myself, he learned ASL later in life, while attending college. Perhaps better than others we understand what it’s like to grow up feeling like you’re constantly trying to please the Hearing World.

We’ve spent a lifetime accommodating hearing people: learning to speak and lipread and function like a hearing person ourselves.

While acknowledging the advantages that such skills have given us, we also bear witness to the pain and struggle of having been (and sometimes still feeling) caught between two worlds. We frequently express our love for ASL and the ease of communication access that it provides. In spite of our oral skills, we consider ourselves proud members of the Deaf Community, and we detest the audism and hearing privilege that we see and experience on a daily basis.

Together we commiserated on what it means to teach ASL to folks who don’t always get it: who simply “want to learn some signs” and don’t care about grammar and syntax, or don’t understand the importance of also studying Deaf Culture. Folks who will sit and whine about “all the hearing-blaming, playing the victim, taking money from the government while sitting on their lazy Deaf asses” behavior they claim to observe repeatedly – while at the same time professing a desire to learn our language.

That seat of hearing privilege is a mighty comfortable one, and many people take advantage of it while oblivious to the oppression they inflict on the very individuals they purport to be supporting and advocating for.

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From talking to this one Deaf peer I then turned to a couple of my colleagues, expressing my thoughts and asking for their feedback. A hearing friend who is herself a certified sign language interpreter and also teaches in an Interpreter Training Program had the following to share:

Coming from a person who had zero connection with the Deaf community or ASL before her first sign language class, I can tell you that hearing people have *no idea* what it takes to learn ASL. Most think that it’s a fun, secret code for each English word…like those games we used to do in school where we’d draw a symbol for each letter of the alphabet and then write a note to our friend for them to decode. I know – I was one of them.

I know things like this can feel like a slap in the face, my friend. The brutal truth is: their jobs, their responsibilities, and their time *is* more important to them than learning a new language. And of course it makes sense that you would be exponentially more invested in teaching than they are in learning. You’ve worked so hard at accommodating them all this time, the idea of *actual* equal effort for communication must seem like a dream.

Indeed, it does feel like a dream – an unattainable one. The harsh reality is that for every student who goes on to graduate from a training program and become an interpreter or least develops fluency with the language, there are ten others who a year or two after completing your class can barely remember any of the signs you worked so hard to teach them.

Simply put – for many sign language students learning ASL is a hobby, an option in their lives, something they decide to take up for fun or bragging rights to impress their friends. Most of them know little if anything about Deaf Culture, and have minimal if any contact with the Deaf Community. They sign up for the class thinking it will be easy and enjoyable, and are then shocked to discover that it is actually harder than they anticipated. So they drop out…because they can. Knowledge of ASL is optional in their world – it is not essential for their daily functioning.

What they forget is that for those of us in the Deaf Community, it is not a hobby. It is our life. It is everything we have, everything that is the essence of us. And it is not an option.

I hope that you will consider taking a sign language class. Learning this language can be a truly positive experience. But if you do sign up, be ready and willing to invest that time, effort, and commitment.
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It will be worth it.

 

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