ON HAND: Signing too fast, Part Two

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

Mary Thornley, a TTMW columnist, wrote a fantastic e-mail in response to my column last week about people asking me to slow down my ASL. Portions of her e-mail follow:

In regard to Trudy’s article about signing rapidly, and that she has never known a deaf person who asked her to sign more slowly; I am deaf and grew up oral. I learned sign only lately, and I have occasionally asked other deaf to ‘pls sign slow for me.’

Everyone thinks a deaf person who is learning sign is ‘odd’ although I don’t know why when we know sign has been targeted for eradication for many years.

I remember in graduate school (not a deaf campus) one professor often said to me, “Oh I love sign language!” every time she ran into me even though I had told her more than once I did not know sign. She didn’t know sign either. Maybe she just couldn’t think of anything else to say.

When I arrived at Gallaudet in 1999 I began attending sign classes. Often I would be the only deaf person in the class. The others, mostly staff, would stare at me as if they were thinking, “What are you doing here?”

The attitude is akin to oralism. Anyone who does not know sign must ‘pick up the language’ through exposure or immersion. No one should ask anyone to repeat or slow down–the same things I was told as a lip-reading child in grade school.

Of course Trudy’s complaint is not about others asking her to slow down but that they present their request as a criticism: she should not be signing fast. Trudy would like to have the same freedom in using her language as hearing people enjoy, and she would prefer that hearing people don’t feel it’s okay for them to criticize her delivery.

Trudy, I might need to ask you to slow down sometime. I hope this is okay.

My mother didn’t learn sign language until she was 17. She knew how to fingerspell, but she functioned as a hearing person growing up. My family has long found this fascinating, considering she’s the most deaf of the family, audiologically-wise.

She is today culturally Deaf, and continues to be able to speak very well. What this has made for is an odd style of ASL. She mouths a lot as she signs, and uses a lot of initialized sign–yet her signing is still ASL in a peculiar way. I’ve long given up on trying to describe it, because her ASL is truly something you have to see for yourself.

Her unique style of signing has created for a lot of nasty situations. When my mom and stepdad were in town one weekend, I took them to a spaghetti dinner benefit at a Deaf club. The clubhouse was packed, and my stepdad, a fluent ASL user, was seated at a table chatting with one of the local deaf leaders. I was in line for my food as I watched them chat.

Mom walked over to sit down at the table. The deaf leader looked at Mom asking my stepdad to get napkins. What she did next, I’ll never forget: she frowned at Mom’s signing, and shook her head in disgust. She then made a show of turning her back to my mother. My heart broke when I saw the hurt and humiliation on Mom’s face.

I got my plate, and walked to the table. The deaf leader lit up as she saw me and said, “Hey! Me introduce you to man…” I told her that he was my stepfather. She smiled as if this made sense. I asked, “Have you also met my mother?” As I pointed to my mother, the deaf leader looked visibly stunned. “That’s your mother? But you two look so different!” I nodded, and ignored her for the rest of dinner.

This, my friends, is why I refuse to ‘reject’ Deaf people who may be oral or slow in their signing. How could I reject my own mother? So, Mary, I will happily sign slower for you. If you’ll be patient with me, I’ll be patient with you.

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