ON HAND: Deaf person coming!

This originally appeared in The Tactile Mind Weekly in Trudy’s ON HAND column.

A friend of mine told me once he always gets irritated by how hearing people at deaf schools immediately start signing whenever a deaf person enters the room or walks by. “It’s so ridiculous,” he said, “Why do they immediately pick up their hands and start signing as if they’ve been signing all this time?”

I was puzzled. Shouldn’t this be how things are? Isn’t it appropriate to provide the deaf person with access to communication as soon as a deaf person enters a room? What was wrong with this picture?

He responded that the answer was so obvious that it was easy to miss. Why weren’t these people signing all the time, rather than only when deaf people were around? Since they were at a deaf school, why weren’t they using ASL all the time, without resorting to speaking?

Why do hearing people need to speak to each other if they can sign at a deaf school? Obviously, there are times when speaking would be necessary, such as meeting with non-signers. But there are very few situations at a deaf school where speaking is an absolute necessity. Let’s face it–speaking is more of a convenience than anything else for hearing people, which is only understandable given that it’s been their main mode of communication for all their lives. Even so, we’re talking about deaf schools where the majority signs. Many schools have signs saying, SIGN LANGUAGE USED HERE. Shouldn’t this mean that sign language is used 24 hours a day on campus, not only when deaf people are around?

Signing at all times, without speaking (and by this I mean signing and speaking at the same time, which is a whole other column), would have such tremendous benefit for everyone involved. Hearing (and probably deaf) signers would have improved fluency, especially those who didn’t learn ASL as a first language. Deaf people wouldn’t feel as if their presence was being announced by the sudden pick-up of hands. Students and teachers would feel comfortable knowing that ASL was available at all times anywhere on campus, rather than only when deaf people were around.

I told my friend that I agreed wholeheartedly with him, but that it’d probably never happen. He said, “Why not?”

Why not, indeed?

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