American Sign Language (ASL) is not a language of mine, and I have no background or proficiency in Deaf communities or cultures. This account is sure to contain mistakes in terminology and perceptions. I apologize and will correct this account if any error seems disrespectful. It is certainly not meant to be.
In 1997 or so the Adult Ed school downtown had a class in ASL. Naturally, I had to hurry on down and sign up for that. Who wouldn’t?
Fascination with the possibilities of manual language started as a kid. At one point I got in some trouble, or at least in some consternation, by learning a fingerspelling alphabet from the back of a book about Helen Keller. I walked around the house spelling to myself until the grownups got worried that I was losing my hearing or common sense or both. They weren’t far wrong. As it happens, New York was quite a loud place with loud speech. People’s voices and words startled me so much that I did secretly pray to God to take my hearing away, thinking how restful it would be to get some peace and quiet. Alternative language modes, from Morse code light flashes to Boy Scout flag wigwagging, seemed very appealing.
In those school days, the WNET educational television channel had a show called “What’s New?” One of the features was “The Quiet Man,” starring Bernard Bragg telling pantomime stories. To me the miming seemed scary, and I always had to leave the room until it was over. But some years after that I was at the library, flipping through the card catalogue looking for some Paul Bragg health book, and noticed a Bernard Bragg memoir called Lessons in Laughter. What a revelation, to learn about The Quiet Man’s lifetime achievements, as a famous actor of Deaf theater! It came as an absolute wonder, to read that book and learn that ASL is not a letter by letter transcription from English, but that it exists as a vastly expressive nuanced language, the medium of historically rich cultural communities and art forms.
In the 1970s When I taught Russian as a graduate assistant, half the grade in drill class was based on recitation. Every student had to stand up before the class each week, to recite a memorized dialogue. One very quiet student was too shy to speak in front of a group. Finally I had to advise her to disenroll from the class before the end of the add-drop period to avoid an F on her report card. She sat in tears at the news, with her fingers writhing in her lap. This was not ordinary fidgeting. Her gestures seemed to anticipate her speech; they looked so complex that at last I said “What are you spelling here?” She explained that she had transitioned to living and interacting in the Deaf community, and was far more comfortable with ASL. “Next week,” I told her, “Stand up in your turn. But let’s have the whole class recite the dialogue together to YOU — and you Sign it back to them.” The idea was a triumph. Her peers were so impressed to discover her remarkable skill that she became the class star, happily teaching Sign to the others. After that she was comfortable Signing while reciting in Russian. (And yes, it would have been more accurate to express Russian using Russian Sign, a completely different language. But to make our class a safer more welcoming place, ASL was just the bridge we needed.) Years later I saw her out and about, a radiant young woman with a group of laughing Signing friends. She stopped and Signed them some story about me. The group enjoyed her story, beamed at me, and applauded her. As they rushed off again she turned back to Sign “Mary I love you.”
There’s been so much to learn, about social and cultural connections beyond hearing, from a whole spectrum of experiences and communication styles. One was Deaf Like Me by Thomas Spradley, about his family suffering and struggling with their daughter Lynn through the “Oral Method” exercises insisted upon by well-meaning teachers, until the parents discovered the power of ASL to communicate with their perfectly bright little girl who was raring to connect with others. There was Joanne Greenberg’s novel Of Such Small Differences, and the main character’s acute awareness, fortitude, and resourceful coping skills — in contrast with the Seeing / Hearing people around him, and their counterintuitive impulses and agendas from pitying to predatory. There was In Silence: Growing Up Hearing in a Deaf World, a heartbreakingly beautiful memoir by Ruth Sidransky about her warm-hearted Deaf parents and the rich East European Jewish Deaf community of New York in the early 20th century. (At her father Benny’s deathbed, the family walked in to his room and found his arms placed in restraints as a fall prevention. In those final moments, the restraints kept this passionately eloquent loving husband from saying his goodbye to his beloved wife and daughter. At the burial, as Ruth’s mother watched his coffin lowered into the ground, she leaned over to sign “Benny? Can you hear now?”)
In 1997 when ASL class started up, I bucked into that room staring so hard at our teacher’s every hand gesture that he would say and Sign “Hey LADY! Back off. You make me nervous.” Our instructor opened a whole world of Signing humor, irony, mimicry, innuendo, allusion, regional dialect, and social register.
[Wee editorial break, 11/21/22: just yesterday I noticed a Koko the Gorilla program note that dear Koko was “fluent in ASL.” What? Koko and her human associates accomplished something unprecedented and wonderful, but… ASL as language and culture is a complete higher realm. End of editorial. -mg]
Before each class I ambushed our teacher with questions, which he then incorporated into his lesson for the evening. Between classes I would walk around Signing words all day. One night after an all-absorbing session, I stepped out to the street still gesturing ideas to myself — and for a moment was startled by the tide of passing humans trying to communicate by pushing their mouth parts at one another, using inefficient clicking and buzzing noises like insects.
One night at the main library, I passed a conference filled with patrons happily Signing with their snack plates and cups on the floor. (One beautiful young woman came with a pretty red foxlike dog. The dog lit up with joy at the good fortune of a floor covered with treats, and glanced up at his owner for cues. She snapped her fingers together to form the letter N for “No!” The dog lowered his head and sighed, and simply skirted around the plates at heel.) I slipped in and noticed a young man who was both speaking and Signing. He turned out to be a hearing storyteller with what appeared to be effortless ASL fluency. I confided to him my concern, that by learning ASL with no background in Deaf culture, I would only be offending members of those communities. This friendly welcoming man could have launched into an account of his own experiences approaching the culture as a hearing outsider. But instead, he thoughtfully interpreted my misgivings to his friends, eliciting their range of opinions so that they could answer for themselves. His friends gave me friendly smiles, and after a rapid spirited discussion suggested an answer. As one of them Signed back, “It would help if more people would learn ASL. At the grocery store I could ask where the eggs are!” They agreed that of course there was a full diversity of opinions and sensibilities in the Deaf communities about the use of ASL; but much depended on an outsider’s attitude, motive, and manners.
At work it was a thrill to receive a first teletypewriter phone call from Mr. Engels, who was interested in purchasing a book. I was so anxious to help that before the operator could ascertain or upgrade my TTY skills, and drawing perhaps upon the wartime telegraphy in Bugs Bunny cartoons, I hollered in monotone “QUOTATION MARK HELLO COMMA CAPITAL MISTER CAPITAL ENGELS PERIOD CAPITAL THIS IS CAPITAL MARY PERIOD CAPITAL WHAT BOOK WOULD YOU LIKE TODAY QUESTION MARK QUOTATION MARK OPERATOR GO AHEAD.” The operator gently clued me in that, in effect, everyone could have a nice day if I would calm down and speak like a humanoid.
By then I’d already worked as a Russian hospital interpreter. In those days before video interpreting, there were always a need for hearing in-person ASL interpreters. Deaf patients were routinely turned away when they showed up for complex appointments, or were given a shrug and a pad and pen. (Our state committee for the rights of people with disabilities had to muscle in at our hospital, when some administrative genius decided to cut costs. He heard that a secretary knew how to sign, so he would call her away from her desk to go interpret medical appointments for the Deaf patients. She interpreted at many appointments until at last one patient stormed out and went right to the State. It turned out that the secretary was using homemade hand signs devised by her family fifty years before to communicate with a sibling — in Greece.) Given the serious shortage of interpreters, it dawned on me: What if one day I could study and advance well enough to be of use to patients?
In the end, I got to serve exactly once as a hospital interpreter for a patient who had lost his hearing. Our dispatcher got a desperate call for a native English speaker with rapid typing skills. All the interpreters in the office at that moment were native speakers of other languages, self-conscious about their English typing. They sent me for the job. The patient was a lovely gentleman who knew no Sign, and whose hearing loss began decades before during military service. The doctors had to reveal grave news, and walk him through the prospects of interventional, palliative, and end of life care. The appointment lasted for a couple of hours. The patient sat beside me, intently reading the computer monitor while I speed-typed every word of the doctors’ instructions in 20 point font. At one point a doctor raised his voice and snapped at the unsuspecting patient. “LOOK at me when I speak to you!” The patient, naturally, did not turn around. I pointed to the monitor and said “Doctor? Mr. X__ is paying full attention to every word you say.” The doctor came over to look, and was fascinated by our transcription workaround — especially when I printed up the entire session for the patient to take home, with the answers to all his questions. (Some time later for the same patient this doctor called the dispatcher and said “Would you send us that English-English interpreter again?” But by then they’d already laid me off to hire interpreters for Iraqi Arabic and Somali.)
Nowadays I keep up with the ever-flourishing talents and achievements of Marlee Matlin in film and Mandy Harvey in music. I watch features like Steve Hartman’s report from CBS Evening News “On the Road,” with the title “Community learns sign language to engage with 2-year-old girl.” But by the end of that first short night course in 1997, rheumatoid arthritis began setting in. Over time, the most basic fingerspelled letters became impossible to form. I was afraid that my mashup gestures would only cause confusion and offense. For example, to suggest the letter “R” (= cross your fingers as if wishing for good luck), I have to reach with the other hand and gently push the middle fingertip toward the first fingertip in a 10% approximation. Fortunately it’s just enough for my gracious Deaf-Blind neighbor, who easily recognizes my deformed hands and is just happy that I pause at his bus stop to say good morning. But the language and the alphabet have slipped through my fingers and are gone.
ASL is one more of my buried dreams, with its potential for connection with the varied and remarkable Deaf language communities. What’s lost isn’t only cartilage and joints. It’s a door closed to relationships and insights on the world.
Late one night on the subway, a teenager 17 years old or so sat alone. As each person boarded the train, the young man glanced up, searching for eye contact, and furtively fingerspelled “Hi.” Nobody engaged with him. My subway stop was coming up next, and I’d have to run to catch the hourly bus to reach my suburb. But I leaned over and Signed “Hello!” He sat bolt upright with a fierce stare of attention, and signed “You Deaf?” From that night class I remembered just enough to Sign back in painful and stiff fashion “No. Hearing. Took class long ago. Don’t know. Sorry.” He launched into the seat next to me and signed “You Deaf?” I signed “No, Hearing. Hands hurt ouch. Signing finished sad.” Obviously it must have seemed illogical to Sign that I don’t Sign, so he tried again: “YOU! DEAF??” As we pulled in to my stop he Signed some urgent message, Signed it again, shook me by the shoulders, and finally in a quick rapid gesture tapped on my teeth. I had to tell him “Sorry late home bye Sorry” before running for that bus.
He had something to tell me. It was something that mattered. What was it? I will never know.