Thursday, April 6, 2017

How ASL Changed My Life

Today in "I Like It," I am taking a u-turn away from books and I am recommending that you acquaint yourself with American Sign Language. 

I live with someone who is hard of hearing. He has worn hearing aids since his forties and understands maybe around 50% of any given conversation. Each year his hearing deteriorates just a little bit more.

Here’s something that a lot of people don’t understand: In most people, glasses can pretty much correct vision to 20/20. Hearing aids do not do this. What they do is amplify everything. If you get a chance, place someone’s hearing aid close to your ear and you’ll see what I mean. It’s certainly better than nothing, but not like glasses.

Helen Keller once said that blindness separates you from things. Deafness separates you from people. 

Any hard of hearing person will tell you this is true. Plunk them down in the middle of any church pot luck with its decibels of ambient noise, and they’ll sit there, and do what is called “the deaf nod.” It means - I’m smiling and nodding, but I cannot be a part of this conversation because I can’t hear a word you’re saying.

Last fall, my husband enrolled in an ASL level one course (American Sign Language). I did not. I decided to wait and see if he would “like it or not.”

Well, he likes it. Loves it, actually. It opened up a whole new world of communication to him. I remember one evening after he came home from "deaf chat” at the mall. He said that for once, he didn’t have to lean forward, hands like funnels behind his ears, straining to hear, and missing most everything. He even said it was a joy to completely turn his hearing aids right off and be a full member of the conversation.

How has ASL changed my life? I have a new appreciation for what my husband goes through. I always thought I did, but this opened my eyes even a bit wider. I am realizing that it’s okay for him to be who he is. And sometimes being “who he is” has him “talking too loud,” because his hard-of-hearing ears are telling him that his speech volume is perfectly okay.

We spent the past few winter months in Florida where we got quite involved in the deaf community and ASL learning. I took a four-week beginner’s course, which turned into six weeks. He took an advanced course and twice a week we went to evening “deaf chat.” I’m learning that most communities have something like this, usually in a mall, where deaf people, hard of hearing people, interpreters and family members just go, buy themselves a coffee and talk. In ASL, of course.

I treasured our Tuesday evenings at Dunkin Donuts, which were always followed by Taco Tuesdays at a pub called Lollygaggers.

Some of the highlights of this winter:

- Attending Children of a Lesser God, a play put on by a local troupe in an eclectic theatre in Tampa called The Space. The play was interpreted and the main character, as in the movie, was deaf herself.

- Learning that deaf people are quite capable, thank you very much. After one of the Dunkin Donuts meeting, I, my hard-of-hearing husband plus two deaf friends were headed to Lollygaggers. When we walked into the pub I thought, “Well, I’m the hearing person here. I guess it’s up to me to get us a table and take care of everything.”

I had barely put my jacket down, and the deaf gal had already very well communicated to the waitress that we wanted those two tables over there shoved together because we were expecting more people, and that she wanted a pitcher of beer. She did all this with smiles and miming. The waitress understood perfectly.

Okay then.

The fact that the bar was so noisy you couldn’t hear yourself think? Made no difference at all to this group of talkers.

- Even though we are beginners, my husband and I are finding it a useful language to communicate. It’s great when you’re out kayaking, or across across a crowded and noisy room.

- Chances are you already know some sign language. The word “Crazy”? The forefinger going in circles around the side of your head. Ask any teenager how to sign the word “Loser,” an L shaped with the thumb and forefinger and placed against your forehead while making a dumb face. Also, “come here,” “goodbye,” and “hello,” are all pretty universal in this language of pictures.

So then, why should you learn ASL?

1. You can communicate with deaf people. Even being able to say “thank you” is important and nice to the deaf community.

2. You can talk to babies. Seriously. Many parents are teaching baby sign language to infants before they learn to talk. My grand baby twins already know the signs for "more," "milk." "finished," and "again." There is some research in its infancy, that is suggesting that nonverbal autistic children are benefitting from learning and using ASL. Click here for that study.

3. You will learn a new culture. I have studied the Spanish language for most of my school years, and then a few university courses. It's a language I love. But not only did I learn a new language, but I learned to appreciate the culture that goes along with it. Culture is how a group of people thinks, and how better to know how they think, than by their words and how these words are put together. The deaf community definitely has their own culture. They are an accepting and huggy lot. They are perhaps a bit more blunt than us non-deaf. If you learn their language you will come to appreciate their culture.

4. There are many studies which indicate that learning a new language, at any age, is good for the brain. It’s especially good to learn a new language in your dotage. It gets your brain treading down a different road. I have found this to be true. I find when I’m scrambling for an ASL sign which has eluded me, I'm suddenly thinking of Spanish words. Or long-forgotten Chinese words, which we studied briefly forty years ago. I can just see the computer neural cells and synapses in my brain saying to one another. ”Okay, This is a language. Spanish? 
Wait. No. Chinese? Here’s the Chinese word. It's got to be Chinese. No. Wait...” Until my brain figures out the correct sign. There's a part of the brain devoted to language.

Here's an article about learning a language and Alzheimers. 

Here's an actual study about the same thing. 

In Two Weeks: A look at the TV series Luther.


  1. Wonderful article, Linda. I know that feeling in a crowd and not being able to participate in dialogue due to injuries suffered in a head on collision. Sometimes if the noise is loud enough I feel like I'm trying to hear through a glass pressed against a wall. Not the same issue at all, but in a small way I feel that I understand. As always your articles are insightful and beautifully written.

    1. Thank you Lina, for sharing your own story. Numbers of people with head injuries, hearing loss and brain tumors are looking at ASL as a way to communicate.

  2. One of our sons-in-law has two deaf sisters, so our family has always been aware of communication/language issues. The main character in our daughter's newest mid-grade book release is deaf, too. Now my hubby is wearing hearing aids and we've come to realize even when you don't start out life with a hearing deficiency that doesn't mean you might not have to cope with one later in life. Our limited knowledge of ASL often comes in handy!

    1. Yes! My husband never dreamed that his hearing loss would be such that he would benefit from learning ASL.

  3. Great article, Linda. What amazing points you make too, regarding why we as hearing people should learn.

    The deaf community love it and appreciate it when hearing people take the tie to learn their language.

    We can wear earplugs to muffle sounds, or watch TV with the volume off and turn on the Closed Captioning to get a feel of what it's like to be 'deaf'. They, however, can't enter ours to know what it's like to hear.

    As an interpreter at our church, I have developed a love for this people many years ago. I have deaf characters in my novels because I want to dispel myths about their community.

    Good for you two, for learning. If ever you're in the Moncton area on a Friday evening, stop by the Champlain Mall food court. The deaf community gathers in front of the Dairy Queen. It's been their spot for as long as I can remember.

    1. Wow! I had no idea you were an interpreter! You must be quite fluent to be able to interpret sermons. Good for you! I would love to be able to help my husband in a church situation, but it requires a bit of language skill that I don't have yet. Need to practice, practice, practice. And if we are in Moncton on Friday, we will for sure drop in!

  4. This is very interesting. I'm wondering about whether we should consider learning sign language. My husband is hard of hearing. Even with the hearing aids, first consonants and other bits escape him. One of the most wonderful parts of our relationship has been our long conversations. Concerning handicapped characters in novels, I was thinking of that today. I was gagging over the similarity of the boyfriends in the light mystery novels I'd read recently. Cookie-cutter buff guys. It struck me that it could be a lot more interesting, and more realistic, to have a love interest with an obvious challenge of some sort.

    1. Sign language is really quite helpful, even for moderately hard of hearing. A lot of schools offer it as one of their 'language' options.

  5. I really appreciated your blog. Being a new hearing-aid wearer, I know the inadequacy of them in some places. I've long been interested in sign language and you may just have given me the incentive to explore it. Several years ago I saw a deaf choir do a presentation and felt as though I had witnessed true praise and worship. Ever since, I longed to be able to sing with my hands as well as my voice. Thank you for bringing this issue to our attention.

    1. I hope you do decide to pick it up at some point. Thanks for your comments.

  6. A very well-written and persuasive article Linda. You definitely got me thinking. Please tell Rik "hello" for me, in whichever language makes the most sense at the time you do!

    1. Thanks Andrew! And I'll be sure to pass on your greetings to Rik.