Sunday, April 22, 2012

American Sign Language

With your wrist tilted slightly to the right, touch the tip of your right middle finger to the tip your right thumb to make a circle. Now touch the tip of your right index finger to the tip of your right thumb, while turning your wrist slightly inward.

You've just "said" the number "eighty-nine" in American Sign Language.

Ever since learning the manual alphabet while at a Girl Scout leadership camp out as a teenager, I've wanted to know more ASL. Between gymnastics and dancing (polka, waltz, swing, modern dance, blues, tango...), I have long since realized I am a physical person, comfortable in my body. I like to move. Old people at church smile at me for swaying to the music of hymns Sunday mornings, and Dear Husband teases me that I already talk with my hands. So it has been natural for me to incorporate both blues and ASL into my liturgical dances.

Me & my camper: "cheeeze!"

As a teen I had experience with children with special needs who communicated with signs. This came in handy two years ago, when I spent 10 days outside San Antonio, TX, at Camp CAMP, volunteering with autistic campers. Many non-verbal individuals with a variety of conditions use signs in addition to or in place of communication boards. With my M.D., I eventually want to practice development pediatrics, so it may be that my ASL skills are more useful among my patient population than my German. 

As part of my Ph.D. training I have also become familiar with academic disability theory and with the closely related disability-rights movement. In the 18th and 19th centuries, hearing people often considered deaf people unintelligent and ineducable due to their "lack of language" (deaf and dumb --> dumb). Then AbbĂ© Sicard, Jean Massieu, Thomas Gallaudet, and Laurent Clerc developed sign languages in France and the United States. Now there is a closely knit Deaf community whose continued existence is threatened by new technologies such as improved cochlear implants.

ASL retains traces of its roots in an earlier historical age.
For instance, to sign "son" pantomime the bill of a cap then cradle your arms: "boy"  + "baby."
For "girl," run your right thumb along your lower jaw line, like a bonnet string.

I've taken a few ASL classes here in town, and I practice with a group at my church every Sunday morning, but I finally decided to make the time for a proper beginner's class this spring. My teacher is a Deaf man with a silly sense of humor who devises games to get us to practice signs for letters, numbers, and grocery-store items. Since I already know the alphabet, numbers, and some basic signs, I have a leg (arm?) up on my classmates, but new signs can still trip me up. For instance, I was a complete mess when we played a game for signing shapes. "Fool me!" (Rap your right fist gently against your upheld left index finger.)

89. 89. 89. As I counted to myself in class last Wednesday evening, I thought about how amazing sign language is. With that simple gesture I was communicating something meaningful to someone. Maybe one day I'll be able to sign with a Deaf patient while waiting for the interpreter to come. Maybe I'll make it out to the mall on a Tuesday evening to meet local Deaf persons and to practice signing. Maybe I'll eventually be able to understand a movie in ASL (the one I saw here in town last summer was a pretty bad rendition of "Freaky Friday," complete with over-the-top gender stereotypes--maybe Deaf theater is better). At any rate, sign language class is one way for me to live outside my teaching (I hate grading!) and dissertating (it's never-ending!) for a few hours a week, while picking up a possibly useful skill for the future.

(Waves "good-bye.")
"C" is for Cubbies!
(All photos are from summer 2010.)

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