SAY IT WITH HANDS

School for deaf builds bridge to the hear­ing com­mu­nity with sign lan­guage classes

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Local Xtra - By Linda Wil­son Fuoco

When com­mu­ni­cat­ing with a per­son who is deaf or hard of hear­ing, don’t talk RE­ALLY LOUD be­cause it re­ally won’t help at all. This would seem to be com­mon sense, but it hap­pens all the time, ac­cord­ing to deaf peo­ple who teach Amer­i­can Sign Lan­guage at the Western Penn­syl­va­nia School for the Deaf.

It also won’t help to over-enun­ci­ate your words. Not all deaf peo­ple can read lips be­cause lip-read­ing is a dif­fi­cult and in­ex­act art, the in­struc­tors said.

To prove their point, they di­rected a re­porter to the “Bad Lip Read­ing” Face­book page, which has hi­lar­i­ous videos of the “wrong” words com­ing out of the mouths of pro­fes­sional ath­letes — and oth­ers.

Most, but not all, of the 170 stu­dents — from preschool through high school — at the school in Edge­wood use Amer­i­can Sign Lan­guage.

The non­ver­bal form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion uses hands and fin­gers as well as fa­cial ex­pres­sions and body lan­guage to com­mu­ni­cate with peo­ple who are deaf or hard of hear­ing.

On a re­cent au­tumn night, 130 adults — none of them deaf — en­tered the fenced and gated 21-acre cam­pus for evening classes in Amer­i­can Sign Lan­guage. Most were signed up for level one classes. Oth­ers were in the more ad­vanced classes, lev­els, two, three and four. They’ll at­tend eight two-hour classes.

“It is very amaz­ing to me that they have come to learn my lan­guage,” said John Noschese. He’s one of the 12 ASL in­struc­tors — each of whom is deaf or hard of hear­ing. He said he is very proud that the fall en­roll­ment of 130 is a siz­able in­crease over the 100 adults who signed up last fall.

Amer­i­can Sign Lan­guage is now the third most-pop­u­lar lan­guage taught in the United States, ac­cord­ing to the Mod­ern Lan­guage As­so­ci­a­tion. Spanish is first, and French is sec­ond.

Founded in 1869, the School for the Deaf has been of­fer­ing ASL to the hear­ing com­mu­nity for decades, but in re­cent years, en­roll­ment has been in­creas­ing for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons.

ASL classes tra­di­tion­ally have been taken by peo­ple like Chris Small of Car­rick, who wants to com­mu­ni­cate with fam­ily mem­bers who are deaf.

“My fa­ther has al­ways been very hard of hear­ing, and is now about 95 per­cent deaf,” said Mr. Small, who works with com­put­ers.

Oth­ers wish to com­mu­ni­cate with friends or co-work­ers, said John Gib­son, who su­per­vises the evening ASL classes. Oth­ers sim­ply en­joy learn­ing languages.

Some ac­tivists push for the lan­guage to be taught to more first re­spon­ders and health care work­ers.

“I would love to help bridge the gap between ASL and English,” said Mr. Noschese, who grad­u­ated from the Western Penn­syl­va­nia School for the Deaf and now works in house­keep­ing there. He’d like to see the lan­guage taught in more high schools and col­leges.

Mr. Noschese and Mr. Gib­son used pro­fes­sional in­ter­preter Joan Stone to an­swer ques­tions from a re­porter and to ex­plain the ASL pro­gram to the 130

adults. They sign their an­swers, and she trans­lates into English.

“This is my fa­vorite part,” said Mr. Gib­son, as he pointed to a big screen that read “NO Voic­ing Pol­icy.” In­stead of talk­ing, be­gin­ner stu­dents could write on a white board if they re­ally needed to, he said.

For their first les­son, in­struc­tors in­vited them to write their names on the white board and taught them how to sign their names.

WPSD in­struc­tors and staff also “pro­mote an un­der­stand­ing of Deaf Cul­ture through in­ter­ac­tion with deaf and hard of hear­ing in­di­vid­u­als,” ac­cord­ing to the web­site, www.wpsd.org.

Asked how those who hear can help peo­ple who can­not, ath­letic di­rec­tor Val Wo­j­ton said, “Just be your­self. Re­ally and truly, deaf peo­ple can do ev­ery­thing but hear.”

He also coaches the school’s soc­cer team, which com­petes against teams from the hear­ing com­mu­nity. Mr. Wo­j­ton, who was taught to talk, can lip read but he said he has to re­peat­edly ask ref­er­ees to talk slower and “look at me” when they talk.

The deaf coach also has to tell ref­er­ees that he and his play­ers can­not hear the whis­tle, “so they need to put their arms up in the air when they blow their whis­tle.”

Mr. Nochese and oth­ers noted they can use pen and pa­per or the screens of cell phones, tablets or lap­tops to com­mu­ni­cate with peo­ple who can­not sign, but most pre­fer more hu­man face-to-face in­ter­ac­tion.

Den­nita Lewis of New Cas­tle was one of the deaf school stu­dents who was help­ing with the evening classes.

For most of her life, Den­nita was main­streamed in schools where all of the other stu­dents could hear, and none of them could sign.

“Ihad an in­ter­preter. To be hon­est, it was very hard for me,” she said. When she trans­ferred to the deaf school two years ago, it was cul­ture shock, she said, be­cause “ev­ery­one was sign­ing and I knew very lit­tle sign lan­guage.” Now a se­nior, Den­nita lives on cam­pus, where she’s happy, pro­fi­cient in ASL and “I feel like I’m get­ting a very good ed­u­ca­tion.”

She’s look­ing for­ward to go­ing to col­lege and hopes to at­tend Gal­laudet Univer­sity in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., a fed­er­ally char­tered pri­vate school for stu­dents who are deaf or hard of hear­ing.

ASL classes will be of­fered Wed­nes­day nights at WPSD from Jan. 10 through Feb. 28, and an­other ses­sion will be held March 14 through May 9. Tu­ition is $60. For in­for­ma­tion or to sign up for classes: www.wpsd.org.

Ha­ley Nel­son/Post-Gazette pho­tos

Stu­dents learn the ba­sics of Amer­i­can Sign Lan­guage at the Western Penn­syl­va­nia School for the Deaf in Edge­wood late last month.

In­struc­tor John Noschese em­pha­sizes the im­por­tance of fa­cial ex­pres­sions while teach­ing a class in Amer­i­can Sign Lan­guage at the Western Penn­syl­va­nia School for the Deaf in Edge­wood.

Ha­ley Nel­son/Post-Gazette

Stu­dents in an ad­vanced class of Amer­i­can Sign Lan­guage learn new vo­cab­u­lary at the Western Penn­syl­va­nia School for the Deaf in Edge­wood.

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