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December 10, 2003

Giving the deaf a voice

From: Mount Shasta Herald, CA - Dec 10, 2003

By Paul Boerger

Camille Johnson instructs the American Sign Language class at College of the Siskiyous in Weed

College of the Siskiyous American Sign Language instructor Camille Johnson says the complexities of deafness cannot be underestimated.

"Many deaf people will tell you they're lonely," Johnson said. "Deafness can leave you isolated. Without an interpreter, what kind of job can you get?"

From a doctors visit to simply finding something in a store, the deaf have obstacles in daily living that most of us take for granted and perform with ease.

"If you got separated from a deaf person in a store," Johnson said, "you wouldn't be able to page them over the intercom. You'd have to just go and find them."

The primary tool the deaf in the United States use to interact with each other and the world is American Sign Language. Through hand signs along with gestures and facial movements that represent words or the alphabet, ASL allows the deaf to communicate.

But it's a mistake, Johnson said, to see ASL as simple English translation.

"It's comparable to learning a second language," Johnson says. "ASL has its own syntax and grammar. The concepts are completely different."

Proficiency in ASL, for example, does not mean a deaf person can read English.

"Written English is the equivalent of foreign language to a deaf person," Johnson said. "It would be like you or I trying to read Russian."

Johnson gives an example of one of the deaf students at COS having to learn to sign the word delegate.

"ASL didn't have a sign for delegate or representative," Johnson said. "We wound up having to sign 'member of a government organization.'

Johnson said looking up words in the dictionary can lead to endless searching for definitions of the words used in the definition.

"Many teachers still don't understand why deaf people can't read," Johnson said.

Another example of how ASL differs from English is the lack of verb tenses.

"You wouldn't sign 'walked.'" Johnson said. "You would sign 'yesterday walk.'"

The grammar also differs from English by having the verb at the end of the sentence.

COS offers interpreters for deaf students who come to classes and sign the lessons. Johnson said the law requires schools to provide interpreters.

"Many deaf people are not aware of their legal rights," Johnson said. "Most deaf kids are not even introduced to higher education possibilities."

Although deaf signing history goes back for centuries, ASL standardization began in 1817 when Laurent Clerc and Thomas Gallaudet established the first school for the deaf in the United States. Clerc and Gallaudet are icons within deaf culture.

Johnson came to signing at an early age.

"I read a book about Helen Keller when I was in the second grade," Johnson said. "I wanted to be Anne Sullivan."

Sullivan was Keller's real life teacher depicted by Anne Bancroft in the movie The Miracle Worker.

"I immersed myself in the language," Johnson said.

Prior to teaching at COS, Johnson worked for the courts, assisted in medical situations and interpreted for a stage musical.

She said that until recently, deaf children were often sent to schools for deaf as young as three years old with no contact allowed with parents for a year. The purpose was to immerse the child in ASL with no interference.

But it's one thing for kids to learn ASL and another to have someone to talk to.

"It still amazes me," Johnson said, 'how many hearing parents with deaf kids do not know how to sign."

Johnson said the the aversion to learning ASL can cause heartache.

"I knew a deaf woman whose hearing fiance promised to learn ASL," Johnson said. "He didn't. She was isolated from him and his family."

Johnson speculates that embarrassment and the time commitment required to learn the language prevents even hearing parents from talking to their deaf children.

"The deaf don't see themselves as handicapped," Johnson said. "They tell you they just can't hear."

Johnson says the deaf need patience from those they interact with. She suggests that upon encountering a deaf person, hearing people try to "put yourself in their shoes."

"But," Johnson says, "deaf is not just what you are; it's who you are. It's a whole culture."

-- Next week: an interview with a COS deaf student.

Copyright © 2003 Mt. Shasta News. All rights reserved.