(Originally posted: May 11, 2017)
BRONX, NY- Learning a language can be beneficial in a variety of ways. For instance, you can have better job opportunities and communicate with people who speak that same language. My parents taught me both English and Spanish growing up. In college, I took the initiative to learn two new languages: Italian and American Sign Language. Although both are beautiful languages in unique ways, ASL left a huge impact in my life. While taking the level one course at Lehman College, I learned that ASL is not only a form of communication for those who have hearing disabilities, but it also has its own culture as well.
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), American Sign Language is defined as “a complete, complex language that employs signs made by moving the hands combined with facial expressions and postures of the body.” ASL is not universal, meaning the American version is not the same as British of French sign language. The grammar rules differ from those in the English language and more modifications are being added to ASL each day.
Why should we learn American Sign Language? Let me start with my personal experience. I have a cousin who is both deaf and mute. She inspired me to learn ASL so I can be able to communicate better with her and others who are deaf. I finally got the opportunity to learn ASL more in depth at Lehman College. I bought a beginner’s kit at Barnes and Noble and reviewed it over the summer. By the first day of class, I already knew the alphabet, numbers 1-20, and a few basic signs. The class transformed my life.
Within four months, I learned about deaf culture, how to give directions, how facial expressions and signs correlate, and the importance of learning the language. My professor was deaf and did not use a cochlear implant, which is a medical device used to replace the functions of the inner ear. This made the class more intimate in grasping the culture. After graduation, I was able to have a conversation in ASL and have learned more signs by studying on my own.
Not all those who are deaf use a cochlear implant. There are many who can hear vague frequencies of sound depending on their range on the audio spectrum. Some would rather not use the cochlear implant and prefer to live with their deafness. There are other technologies that help the deaf community communicate with others like the TTY (text telephone, formerly known as TDD) and FaceTime. The deaf community does not like using the word “disabled” to describe being deaf. It’s disrespectful. Just use “deaf” or “hard of hearing.”
There is a debate in the medical field about doctors learning ASL in their studies. Interpreters are not always available when a deaf patient needs their diagnosis to be translated. Some people who are deaf can read lips, but if more than one person talks at the same time, it can be frustrating to understand anything. More medical professionals are taking ASL classes to assist those with hearing disabilities. This is also debated in courtrooms, federal offices, and schools.
The media has begun to raise awareness for the deaf community. Switched at Birth, a teen drama on the Freeform network, told the story of two teenagers who realized a mistake had been made the day they were born. One of the protagonists was deaf. The show gained praise for its controversial topics like campus rape, racism, and even had an episode done completely in ASL. It motivated many people to learn the language during its six season run while giving the deaf community something they can relate to. Dancing With The Stars had Nyle DiMarco, their first deaf contestant, win the mirror ball. DiMarco’s win proved to viewers that a hearing disability doesn’t stop him from dancing and enjoying music.
In 1856, Edward Miner Gallaudet founded Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. The school educates those who are deaf, hard of hearing, mute, and a small percentage of hearing students. President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill that allowed the school to confer college degrees in 1864. Until this day, graduates have their diplomas signed by the current President of the United States. Gallaudet University is an integral part of deaf culture as a primary resource for career opportunities, educational opportunities, open communication and visual learning, ASL, and deaf history and culture.
Social media has also been playing an important role in raising awareness to learning American Sign Language. People have shared videos of a Starbucks barista receiving an order in ASL from a deaf woman. Amber Galloway Gallego, an ASL interpreter, is changing the way the deaf community experiences music with her informational videos. Nyle DiMarco teaches his followers basic signs through his Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. Even Chris Pratt learned ASL to apologize to the deaf community after realizing how important closed captions are in videos. This is only the beginning of how social media is assisting in motivating others to learn ASL.
Please, at least learn basic American Sign Language. Imagine how thankful someone in the deaf community will be when you sign to them? I have had great conversations with an individual who is deaf or hard of hearing and they are often surprised that I can sign. This is a language that is poetic to learn and becoming a requirement in most federal offices. Take a chance and see how American Sign Language can impact you.
National Institute on Deafness and Other Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) “American Sign Language.” 03 May, 2017. www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/american-sign-language/
“Gallaudet History and Tradition.” Gallaudet University. 08 May, 2017.
Last Updated: July 26, 2019