ON HAND: Praise a Deaf person’s ASL today

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

A few weeks ago, I told a 16-year-old boy that his ASL was wonderfully fluent. He looked surprised, but grinned as he thanked me.

I did this because of a father I met a few years ago. I was asked to give a particular speech I had done at an earlier conference, this time to a group of parents. At the end of the speech, there was a question-and-answer session.

A father of a 14-year-old boy went into an explanation of how his “hearing-impaired” son was obviously smart, but he found it frustrating that his son struggled with where to place commas. I glanced over at his son sitting next to him, and the boy was clearly embarrassed. The father ended by asking if commas were found in ASL.

I thanked the father for asking a good question, and explained that there are the equivalent of commas (head pauses, body movement, etc.) in ASL. I also said gently that I, as a deaf person, would be more concerned about whether a deaf child could read Hemingway or communicate his feelings. I added that I preferred to encourage deaf children in expressing themselves, rather than pigeonhole their comma use. The boy smiled at me and nodded in gratitude. The father sat down, deep in thought. After the session, the boy approached me shyly, and I was blown away by how intelligent he was, and how gentle yet beautiful his signing was.

That afternoon, as I drove the 90 miles back to my home, I wondered: had anyone ever told the boy how good he signed? I immediately regretted not having told him.

Here’s why. When I returned to public school as a young teenager, my ASL was criticized by an interpreter who would laugh and mimic my speedy signing by voicing in shrill tones for the benefit of the hearing students. After a while, I started refusing to go to class, so Mom notified my guidance counselor/interpreter coordinator, who was also a CODA. He immediately took care of the situation. Even though the interpreter and I eventually became good friends, I still get self-conscious nowadays about my ASL. If only someone had told me back then that my ASL was beautifully fluent…

I promised myself on that drive home that I would start praising deaf people–especially children–on their ASL. They get criticized enough on their English and speaking skills, but are rarely complimented—if ever–on their ASL fluency.

Won’t you please do the same today, and praise a deaf person’s ASL?

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