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March 31, 2010

Speaking in silence

From: University of Virginia The Cavalier Daily - Mar 31, 2010

Signing through deaf culture at UVa
Katie McNally, Cavalier Daily Senior Writer

The lights dim in the auditorium. Anticipation builds within the room. The introducer begins to warm up the waiting crowd and is greeted with … silence.

This reaction is not because Prof. Christopher Krentz, the director of the University’s American Sign Language Program, is not giving a good speech or because the audience is not excited for the act. On the contrary, Krentz seems to have given such a wonderful introduction that the crowd is greeting him warmly, only without the customary clapping, because this is a part of the Deaf Culture Lecture Series. The audience here is forgoing applause in favor of upplause, in which individuals greet performers by waving both hands just above their head. As a result, their appreciation can be shown and does not have to be heard.

Not too long ago, however, such traditions would have been fairly unknown at the University. Deaf culture in the way it is thought of generally today — one that communicates primarily through American Sign Language — did not arrive on Grounds until the 1990s. Before then, the only deaf education program at the University had been a failed system that focused on oral education. The modern form of deaf culture took shape here when Krentz came to the University and created the ASL Program.

Since then, the program has enjoyed some success, perhaps in part because of the University’s location, ASL Prof. Gregory Propp said, noting its proximity to Gallaudet University — a federally-chartered school for deaf and hard-of-hearing students — in Washington D.C.

“Charlottesville’s an interesting place,” Propp said. “We’re close to properly the Mecca of deaf culture in the world.”

Being so close to a university that is devoted to educating deaf and hard-of-hearing students gives University students the opportunity to interact with a much larger deaf community than they have ever encountered, as they can attend many events that are conducted entirely in American Sign Language. The ASL program even tries to recreate this experience at the University, not only for hard-of-hearing students, but also for everyone who is learning the language, Propp said.

The Deaf Culture Lecture Series is not the only initiative the department has undertaken to pursue this goal. It hosts, for example, signing suppers and Friday lunches, which are conducted entirely in sign language. These events are not limited to University students, thus fostering interaction with hard-of-hearing members of the Charlottesville community, as well. Representatives from the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind and students from Blue Ridge Community College also are present.

These events, however, are more than just opportunities to practice sign language, especially for hard-of-hearing students who are not accustomed to a culture of complete communication through sign language, Propp said.

Many of these hearing-impaired students who attended mainstream schools needed to have interpreters, he said, so being in a group where signing is the primary mode of communication is a completely new experience for them.

Such was the case for Jasmine Saleh, co-president of Deafness Education and Awareness For All Students. Born deaf, Saleh learned ASL in middle school but still felt limited in a mainstream high school where there were few other hard-of-hearing students.

“I was confused, lost. But when I entered U.Va. and took ASL, I felt I belonged in the program and I just became fascinated with deaf culture,” Saleh said.

Such stories hint at just how much deaf culture can do to help those students feel more comfortable socially, as they often have difficulty connecting with others in a world that emphasizes spoken languages. Not only do these students face a verbal communication barrier, but their expectations for physical contact are also different from those of hearing individuals.

“Deaf people tend to be more physical than hearing people. When they meet friends, there’s always a hug,” said Rocco Devito an ASL professor and member of the deaf community.

In fact, people who speak ASL as their first language tend to be more observant of small physical exchanges in general, considering the importance of such exchanges to sign language. Facial grammar, for example, is so important in ASL that beginners often miss things because they are looking just at the speaker’s hands and forget to watch that person’s face as well, Devito said.

And these differences in communication could be just one example of a cultural distinction between the deaf and hearing.

“The performance art is totally different from the hearing world, and there are some different social customs,” Saleh said.

In particular, deaf people are more likely to talk as they eat because chewing food does not prevent one from signing in the same way that it can hamper speaking, she said.

Deaf people also may react differently to other people’s conversations, she said. Instead of walking around two people who are talking, deaf individuals more likely will say “excuse me” and walk between them.

Knowing about and respecting these distinctions could help facilitate the interactions between hearing and deaf people. Knowing those differences, Saleh said, helps her in ASL classes and at events on Grounds. Deaf and hearing students encounter each other everyday and — thanks in large part to the growth of the ASL program at the University — both have a chance to learn more about a culture which they may not otherwise encounter.

For deaf and hard-of-hearing students, the ASL program and DEAFS have a dual purpose. They create a feeling of community but also raise awareness about deaf culture so that the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, while close, is not isolated. Thus, the events work to build the community while helping it reach out to those outside it.

@2010 The Cavalier Daily