Oberlin Blogs

Sports Bars, Silent Weekends, and American Sign Language

April 18, 2015

El Wilson ’18



"How you?"

"Good. How you?"

"Little stressed. I homework have, but I fine."

This is a fairly average conversation between Elana Pontecorvo, one of my ABC's of ASL Exco teachers, and me. Obviously, it would all be signed instead of spoken. And, yes, that is correct American Sign Language (ASL) grammar. For those of you who don't know, an Exco is a class taught and designed by students or members of the community.

Before I talk about my amazing experience learning ASL at Oberlin, I feel the need to clarify something: ASL is a language. I know this may sound obvious, but it's actually a very little known fact. When I tell people I'm learning ASL, their response is usually "I would love to learn to sign one day." They say it as if it would be as simple as becoming an expert shoe-tier. (Ok, I didn't master that skill until high school, but that's besides the point.) ASL isn't a fun hobby. It's a legitimate language with its own sentence structure, grammar, and nuances. Frankly, to think of it as anything less is ableist.

As many of you know, I was born with cerebral palsy, which means that my brain has a hard time controlling various parts of my body. In my case, it has caused a speech impediment in addition to the whole wheelchair thing. I did not speak well enough to be understood until I was five, so my parents taught me barely enough sign language to communicate. However, as soon as it became clear that I was going to speak, the signing stopped completely because my parents feared that I would sign instead of talk. Since then, science has shown my parents' worries to be unfounded.

In middle school and high school, I picked up a few signs here and there, mostly from disabled-kid camp and the internet. I had always dreamt of becoming fluent but didn't have the resources to attend official ASL classes. Despite my lack of proficiency, ASL was an integral part of my identity. The few signs I remembered from childhood constantly popped up in my mind. I would subconsciously sign while I spoke or while I was dancing to a song I knew the lyrics to. I had to constantly remind myself that strangers don't know what "Thank You" is in sign language or I would come across as very ungrateful.

When deciding which college to attend, my only hesitation about choosing Oberlin was that it doesn't have an ASL program. Luckily, all of the other benefits outweighed this cost, and I realized that if I wanted to learn ASL badly enough then I would find a way to do so no matter what Oberlin offered. Deciding to take the ASL Exco this semester was obviously an easy starting point.

From my very first day, I loved the class. We start every hour not saying a word. The instructors teach us using a combination of fingerspelling, role-playing, charades, and writing things on the board. This strategy gives us space to learn what it really means to talk without words, and it reinforces vocabulary we learned in past classes by forcing us to use it to learn new concepts. Once there is only 15 minutes left in the class, we all turn our voices back on and review what we've learned just to make sure everyone understood everything. Going to ASL class is the highlight of my week. Communicating through ASL makes me feel more connected to my disability and to the disabled community as a whole. Plus, while I'm in class, others value my disability. It's not seen as a challenge, but rather as a cultural difference, maybe even as an advantage.

Determined to extend my learning further than the classroom, I attend the weekly ASL lunches in the Dascomb lobby every Monday. One day, while munching on a salad (signing with your mouth full is totally acceptable) Elana announced that she was going to a Deaf/ASL meet up on Friday and that she could give a few of us a ride there. I nearly screamed from excitement. I immediately agreed to go. That Friday night, we drove to a sports bar located in a strip mall about thirty minutes away. Once we arrived, I found myself surrounded by people who knew or were learning ASL. I was thrilled! I had never seen so many people signing at once. They were having actual conversations and laughing. Most of them were college students in ASL classes, but there were a few Deaf people. I occasionally signed with the other Oberlin students, but I mostly just sat there, eating fried ravioli and trying to pick out individual phrases from other people's conversations. Every few minutes, I would burst into a fit of giggles because I was so astounded by the fact that, because I didn't have to speak, I was taken seriously by complete strangers.

Often, the moment new people hear my voice, they blow me off as mentally disabled or somehow incompetent. This even happens at Oberlin. Once, I ran into a parent and a prospie who wanted to sit in on my fiction class. While I was guiding them to the right room, a student stopped them and asked them if they needed directions. I told the student that I was going to the class, but she blew me off and kept asking them if they knew the name of the professor, what department it was in, etc. etc. Eventually, the father had to interrupt her to tell her that I knew where I was going.

Nothing like that happened at the ASL meet up. People asked me normal questions like what my major was or what college I went to or what I wanted to eat, and they "listened" to my answers. It wasn't until I started eating and people noticed that I chew differently that people started to cock their heads.

When we finally got back to the car to return to Oberlin, Elana announced that someone had told her about an ASL immersion weekend organized by the ASL professors, Fred and Louis, who ran the meet up. Being the impulsive human that I am, it only took me a few days to decide that I was going to tag along.

A few weeks later, we met up with a friend from Cleveland I knew from my time at the Kenyon Young Writers Program who drove us the rest of the way to the camp. The event took place at a Christian summer camp that had been rented out for the weekend.

We spent most of the weekend playing games that tested our communication abilities, ASL grammar, and general problem-solving skills. Despite the fact that no one spoke, I understood what was going on most of the time. Okay, there was one time where I thought I was playing on the other team, but, other than that, I never felt lost for more than a few minutes. I picked up many new words (my favorite being "wheelchair") and my confidence flourished. I made friends and just had a great time laughing and playing with everyone.

As I lay in bed my second night there, something dawned on me: I'm not Deaf. I know this doesn't sound shocking, but it's a revelation that puts me in a strange position. I've always belonged in any disabled community I've entered. No questions asked. However, I don't totally belong in the Deaf community because I'm hearing.

In fact, Deaf people don't even identify as being disabled. They see their Deafness as a cultural and language distinction, not a physical disability. Obviously, as someone who proudly identifies as disabled and sees it as a key part of diversity, I have a bit of an issue with this. On one hand, minority groups have the right to choose whatever labels they want for themselves. Nonetheless, by saying that they refuse to use the word "disabled," they are implying that being disabled is a bad thing. I'm not a fan of this, and I'm not sure how to respond to it. I agree with their view on Deafness, but I have a very different view of disability.

Then, there's the issue of cultural appropriation. There are some instances where using ASL without acknowledging the long history and culture behind it is clearly appropriation, no questions asked. This includes the ubiquitous co-op knock. During orientation, I would sign "yes" when I agreed with something someone said. One day, someone pointed out to me that they were amazed that I had picked up on the co-op knock so early. I was really confused. What was this co-op knock? (Turns out, it's the sign used in co-op meetings to signal that you agree with something someone else said.) When it was explained to me, I was angry. I wasn't doing the co-op knock; I was speaking my first language. It's not that I believe that the co-op knock shouldn't be used, but we shouldn't call it the co-op knock when it is in fact a word in a language with strong roots.

Other times, the issue of cultural appropriation and belonging isn't so clear. I don't know whether or not I can say that ASL is part of my disabled identity. Does ASL belong solely to the Deaf or to all disabled people who have a clear reason to use it (e.g. a speech impairment)? Once my ASL is greatly improved, will I belong with the Deaf group or the hearing group at integrated gatherings? Is Deaf culture part of my culture?

I don't have answers to any of those questions. Part of being an Oberlin student is questioning issues like these and learning as much as you can about them. (Warning: Shameless plug to follow.) Elana and I (well, mostly Elana) have invited the two Deaf professors (Fred Palchick and Louis Ricciardi) who organized the weekend to come speak at Oberlin about their perspective and the history of Deaf culture. It's tomorrow (Sunday, April 19th, 2015) at the AJLC at 3pm. There will be a Q&A afterwards, so you should totally come check it out!

I am unbelievably grateful for the opportunity to learn ASL. The one thing I've learned about Oberlin is that if you want to learn to do something, you can, even if it's not an official major. Use winter term, take an Exco, email a professor who might have some insight, or even just hop over to the library. Oberlin lets us be in control of our own education, even if that means mastering a language without words.

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