Sign language speaks of community
Nadelle Payne, a high school teacher of American Sign Language, can go all day without talking to someone other than her students.
She is deaf.
“I can pass people in the hall and say `Hi,’” she says through an interpreter. “But not a conversation.”
So, on a recent Saturday, she and about 25 other deaf women and men, including high school and college students studying ASL, gathered at a Starbucks in Highlands Ranch to talk.
The conversations — lively, graceful, expressive — continued for hours.
Fingers moved swiftly.
Arms glided, up and down, back and forth.
Emotion danced across animated faces.
All of it, together, words without sound spinning eloquent stories, woven in a warmth born of shared community.
“To immerse ourselves in our own language” is a gift, a reprieve from the isolation that comes with being deaf, Payne says. “Hearing people can talk every day, on the phone … all the time. We talk when we have someone to sign with.”
The monthly Starbucks gathering is one of many in the area designed to nurture connection and fellowship among a populace defined by its unique communication and culture.
There are deaf social chats at restaurants in Boulder and Castle Rock, silent bowling nights at an alley in Lone Tree, festivals and ASL performances at Rocky Mountain School for the Deaf in Lakewood, an ASL haunted house night during Halloween, a deaf social chat in Superior, a meeting for deaf senior citizens in Denver.
“It is like you are going to deaf Mecca where there are all deaf native signers,” says Michelle Stricklen, an ASL instructor at Front Range Community College who is deaf.
“It is,” she says in an email, “phenomenal to me.”
Pam Meadows, a Castle Rock resident and California transplant who has been deaf since birth, started the monthly socials at the Highlands Ranch Starbucks about 2½ years ago.
“We come here to socialize,” she says through her friend Dawn Davies, a Littleton schools counselor who is not deaf and is interpreting. “But it also helps ASL students so they can experience what deaf people are like.”
Davies, who began learning to sign in first grade, attends many of these events to visit with friends. But as a school counselor she also helps introduce first-timers, particularly students, to the group. “I like to help bridge the gap a little bit.”
A handful of high school students from Castle Rock and Highlands Ranch are here this day. It is their second visit. They come to practice signing, but they’ve picked up on some other aspects of deaf culture, too.
“They’re really close,” Shawna Doughten says.
“You can talk across the room,” Makayla Elms says with a smile.
“They’re not different,” Paige Luke says. “Other people think they’re handicapped, but they’re not.”
The three teens, along with Kayla Hendrickson from Castle Rock, have fallen in love with the language.
“It’s just so expressive,” Hendrickson says. “I love how it’s really metaphoric … how you can kind of get creative with it.”
“When you’re describing stuff, you’re supposed to try to create a picture,” Elms says.
“You use a lot of motion,” Luke says.
The language is actually more straightforward, points out Jazelle Edwards, 9, here with her mother, who is deaf. She is not, though. “You don’t have to say the little words,” such as “and” and “the.”
“Sign language is so much fun to talk,” says Clay Amos, who with his fiancee Ivy Oswald recently moved from Pennsylvania. They’ve come to meet new people. Although both are deaf, Amos can lip read and speak; Oswald has a cochlear implant, which allows her to hear, and she can speak.
“It’s feelings,” Amos says about signing. “It makes you laugh.”
“It is,” Oswald says with a smile, “theatrical.”
And just like a spoken language, it has tones and accents, the students say. “People have tones with their voice,” Hendrickson says. “You kind of have a tone of your sign. Everyone signs differently.”
George Veditz, former president of the National Association of the Deaf, said this about sign language in 1913: “It is my hope that we will all love and guard our beautiful sign language as the noblest gift God has given to deaf people.”
And it is beautiful. To watch people sign is to watch stories unfold like the lyrical melody of a song. You can sense the happiness, the sadness, the excitement, the disappointment — even when you don’t know what the signs mean.
But that inability to understand often creates discomfort among those who can’t communicate back, similar to being in a country whose language is not your own.
“Many people are intimidated by us,” Payne acknowledges. “It takes a lot of effort for hearing people to communicate” with those who can’t hear.
Stricklen tells the story of asking a flight attendant for a menu and being given one in Braille. “I told her, `No, I just need regular.’ Am I blind?”
At the other end of the spectrum, Payne says, “we are afraid we will be misunderstood.”
The key, as with anyone who doesn’t know your language, is to try.
“We like having friends,” Payne says. “We like it when people make an effort to try and communicate.”
On this day, around the tables in the coffee shop, the barriers are down.
Two women stand by the door, lost in conversation, eyes focused on each other’s signs. Next to them, Makayla Elms and Paige Luke are signing with little Jazelle and her older brother.
Nearby, Payne, Davies and Meadows are in deep conversation with a group clustered in chairs. And at the tall table across the way is Oswald, hands moving, fingers working, animated as she and Amos sign with new friends.
A peacefulness of sorts quietly connects them all.
They are, in a sense, home.
Watch, and listen carefully. The silence speaks loudly.
Ann Macari Healey’s column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at email@example.com or 303-566-4110.