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y ASL pin came several months ago, and I’ve been wearing it proudly.  For those who are interested in that sort of thing, here it is:  I’m now equipt and ready to help anyone who signs!


n my interpreting class last night everyone was required to do a group presentation on a topic of their choice.  There are only four boys in the class, so they all banded together and decided to do gender issues in interpreting.  Out of all the presentations, theirs impressed me the most.  They brought up a ton of interesting stuff.  that I had never contemplated before about interpreting for a person of the opposite gender.

*Disclaimer: There are dirty words in this post.

To start off their presentation one of the boys signed a story to us and asked us to write down our interpretation.  He told us it was an informal conversation among friends, so we should keep that in mind while interpreting.  My translation was “3 of my friends and I went out to a bar.  We were sitting at the counter when this girl walked up and sat down.  Her skirt was so short, you could totally see her vagina.”    Other girls had written down silly euphemisms like “Lady Junk” and our female teacher wrote down “she was clearly not wearing chonies.”

The boy’s point on this was that none of those words would have come out of their mouths… possibly vagina, but not very likely.  When they did the same excercise, they came up with words that would be considered much dirtier, like pussy and snatch… words that most females feel uncomfortable saying.  I’ve spent a lot of time around (extremely) rude and crass boys before, but none of those other terms came to my mind as I was translating.  I don’t know if I was just so concentrated on the meaning that I forgot I was representing someone else’s conversation, or if it’s truly because I’m female and uncomfortable with saying those things.  Maybe it was a little of both.  I think this exercise was a drastic example of how the male mind and the female mind work completely differently, and that you have to be aware of those things if you’re going to interpret for someone of the opposite gender.

Another thing they brought up was “Passive Voice”.    Passive Voice is a way of speaking and acting towards another person that is deferential.  Women often use passive voice when interacting with people, both male and female, so as not to be perceived as bitchy.  We do it without thinking about it, so it’s not a conscious choice or anything.  Males, however, often use a more aggressive voice – especially in business situations.  This will influence your interpreting style.

To illustrate this, the boys talked about the story of a woman interpreter and her male deaf client who was a manager at a company.  She noticed as she was interpreting for him at work meetings that the assignments he gave people either didn’t get done or got done much slower than some of the other manager’s requests.  She decided to have a chat with her client about how he wanted to be perceived around the office and then did her best to perpetuate that image through her speaking, even if it was uncomfortable for her.  People suddenly started taking his assignments more seriously.  When her client’s work evaluation came up, she did the same.  Instead of saying things like “I think I did pretty well this year”, she would say things like, ” I did great this year and this is why.”  She said she felt very rude and pushy doing it that way, but the performance evaluation went amazingly well.  When it was over, her deaf client told her it was the best evaluation he had ever had.

I think this is another good example of an interesting thing: I know how to be a woman in the world, but in order to be a good interpreter I should also learn about being a man in the world as best I can.  If I don’t learn more about gender dynamics and how men operate, I can potentially hurt a client by misrepresenting him.  I mean, best case scenario – he sounds silly.  Worst case scenario – he misses out on a promotion because he’s perceived as weak.

It’s a lot of food for thought, and something I’ve never really pondered before.  This interpreting stuff is harder than it looks!!

In the late 1600’s, an extended family from Weald, England settled on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in New England.  The family carried a strong hereditary deafness gene, and as they married and intermarried, the rate of deaf people born on the island rose steadily.  By the 1700’s almost everyone on the island had a deaf family member or two.  Because of the high rate of deafness, the society on the island was completely different from mainstream, mainland society.

Mainland New England at this time was generally a terrible place for deaf people to live.  Many people believed that deafness was a punishment from God.  While the families of deaf children may have developed home signs, mainstream society could not understand these rudimentary signs, usually only good for expressing basic needs and requests, and different from home to home.  Scholars debated about whether a deaf person could reason and learn like a hearing person.  There were almost no career opportunities for deaf adults.  The best they could hope for was to be trained to do manual labor for someone else’s business.

The prospects for deaf people on Martha’s Vineyard were completely different.  Many of the former residents of the island were interviewed, and they paint an idyllic picture of what it was like to live in Martha’s Vineyard during this time.  Because everyone had a deaf family member, everyone in the community knew sign language.  Deaf people were farmers, store clerks, anything they wanted to be.  Hearing people would sign to each other over the large expanses the island farms created, a deaf person could walk into a store and the clerk would always know sign.  Deaf people were even elected to high political office, becoming mayors and council members for the island, a thing unheard of in the rest of the country.  When telling stories about the community, the people who were being interviewed could only remember after much prompting if the people they were talking about were hearing or deaf.

The rare deaf/hearing equality experienced in Martha’s Vineyard is still remarkable today.  In a society where hearing people are ignorant about deaf issues and can be very rude, a place like Martha’s Vineyard seems particularly wonderful.  The equality that was shared by everyone, and the prejudices about deaf people that didn’t exist, make the little island community seem like the perfect place.  Many deaf people consider it the ultimate utopia.

Ironically, the opening of the first deaf school in Hartford, Connecticut was a big reason why the hereditary deafness on the island petered out.  Many deaf people from the island attended the school, met and married other deaf people who’s deafness wasn’t hereditary, and lived and had children near the school on the mainland of New England.  As more and more of the population moved away, less and less deaf children were born on the island.   In 1952, hereditary deafness died on the island with the death of Katie West.  Though the community is gone today, it’s signs live on.  Children attending the Hartford school mixed their signs in with the French Sign Language Laurent Clerc brought with him from Paris, creating much of the uniquely beautiful American Sign Language that exists today.

ately, I’ve noticed Deaf people and ASL all over my TV screen.  From Sue Thomas, FBEye, to episodes of the ever popular Glee, to Kay Jeweler commercials, to re-runs of The West Wing, deafness seems to be everywhere lately.  While I think it’s great that deaf people are getting wider media exposure, I think we should be asking ourselves if this is the kind of media exposure deaf people want.  I have never seen an episode of Sue Thomas, FBEye, so I don’t really feel that I can make judgements about it, but the other three I’ve seen several times.  It seems to me that The West Wing portrays a positive and empowering picture, while Glee makes fun of deafness and the Kay commercial violates a common value held by the deaf community.  Hearing and deaf people alike can be getting the wrong ideas from these negative portrayals, and I think the impact should be discussed. 

The West Wing, with Marlee Matlin as Joey Lucas, is an ideal portrayal of what a deaf person’s life in politics could be like.  Joey is considered one of the team, equal to anyone else on the show.  The President suggests she run for congress, she’s trusted with intimate and important secrets, and some on the staff start to learn sign language so they can communicate with her better.  Not only that, but she upholds most of the values of the Deaf community.  Joey has an interpreter who follows her everywhere and is her voice.  Although she does speak on very rare occasions, mostly she speaks only in sign language, and reads what’s going on in the room from her interpreter’s hands.  She has a bit of a flirtation with the Deputy Chief of Staff, but they never date or even kiss.  Any serious relationship she has is not with a hearing man.  By treating her in the script as an equal, The West Wing has given a wonderful deaf role model to Deaf America.

I do have a few good things to say about Glee.  The students in the choir actually performing the song were wonderful, and their ASL was wonderful as well.  That being said, Glee was awfully insulting to deaf people in general. While things like the deaf “soloist” speaking above the music, and the fact that they didn’t show much of the ASL , felt like minor violations of deaf culture to me, what really bothered me was the way the advisor of the deaf school was portrayed.  He was played for laughs, insisting he was hard of hearing and yelling back and forth in silliness with the regular staff.  I like to think that I’m not quick to take offense, but to me, this heavily implied that officials in the deaf world are unprofessional and ridiculous.  I felt the same embarrassment for the show as I would have felt if they had decided to do a choir number in black face.  It was extremely inappropriate, and it made me sad.  Normally I really like Glee. 

My Deaf Culture teacher has told me that, much like catholics marrying outside of Catholicism, Deaf – Hearing marriages are very frowned upon.  And yet in the Kay Jeweler commercial, we see a hearing man with inferior sign language skills giving a deaf woman an expensive piece of jewelry.  In my world, girls only accept expensive pieces of jewelry if they’re romantically involved with the man giving it to them, so I think we can safely assume that the two in the commercial are seriously dating.  So let’s look at this from a not necessarily deaf point of view.  The man admits that his sign language skills aren’t very good, and for Deaf people,  lip reading and writing things down are great for communicating basic needs but aren’t very good for substantive thoughts and feelings.  By this, we can infer that they have never had a real conversation in their whole life, and why, why, why, would a nice girl like that have anything to do with a man she has never really spoken to?  Maybe because he buys her expensive jewelry.  But then what does that say to deaf little girls about what they should be dreaming of when they grow up?  Nothing good.  It’s upsetting to me that Kay couldn’t come up with a less ludicrous idea for a commercial featuring sign language and deafness, but obviously they couldn’t. 

Deafness and ASL has been everywhere lately.  While the portrayals aren’t always the most flattering, or the most in line with Deaf Culture, there could be some truth to the saying “any advertising is good advertising”.  After all, wider exposure of ASL only makes more people realize what a beautiful language it is.  Hopefully this will incourage more people to get into a classroom, where they will be exposed to the truth of what Deaf Culture really is.

alifornia School for the Deaf, Riverside was all aflutter with activity.  The football field was blindingly lit.  Clumps of parents stood around in awful flourescent yellow vests proclaiming “Event Staff” in black letters.  A long line of cars waited patiently to pull into the parking lot.  I parked by a tree and made my way to the football field in time to see the kickoff, winding my way through a busy avenue of red easy-ups selling food, Riverside t-shirts, and phone services.  Kids ran here and there throughout the vast crowd, a sea of sporadic red.  Some of them had paws or “go cubs” drawn on their faces in red lipstick as they ran.  I took my place awkwardly at the back of the crowd, trying to find a spot where I wouldn’t be in the way, but could still see the football game.  As I watched the crowd around me, the cheerleaders trying to excite the crowd and the game happeining on the field, it struck me just how similar and different this event was from the events I had been to at my mainstream high school.

A festival atmosphere surrounded the crowd.  It was impossible not to notice how excited everyone was to be there.  As I joined them, I couldn’t help but notice how quiet the crowd was in comparison to a hearing crowd of the same size.  There was very little talking going on, with everyone signing excitedly to their neighbor.  Hearing children would run by me, chattering to their friends as they went, and students stood talking quietly in little groups.  People were constantly walking by me on their way for another drink or a funnel cake, and they would inevitably be stopped by someone who was thrilled to see them.  It seemed to me as if the whole crowd knew each other.

There was a cheer squad standing on the sidelines in red outfits.  They stood in lines, high school aged girls in red and white cheer uniforms and little elementary aged girls in white t-shirts with red pleated skirts.  They did several routines clumped together on the sidelines, staying together as well as if there were invisible music playing.  At half time when they spread apart onto the field, they weren’t as united as when they had been clumped together, but they were still very good.  As the night wore on, the littler girls joined the crowd and the cheerleaders started throwing things into the audience.  Suddenly, people were waving their arms and cheering at the girls, just to get a little football thrown their way.  It was the first time all night that the crowd seemed interested in what was happeining on the field.  The cheerleaders were great, but somehow they didn’t seem to hold my interest like they normally do at a game.

On my way back from the snack booth at half time, I ran into Red from my Deaf Culture class and I realized that she was standing with a whole group of people who I also knew.  I joined them, chatted a lot, and tried to keep one eye on the game.  For some reason, I had such a hard time paying attention to anything going on out there.  Every once in a while I would look up and realize that the score was different, but there had been no fanfare to tell me that things had changed, no collective cheer or groan from the audience about another touchdown being scored.

Overall my experience was great, if a little unusual.  It took me a long time to find people I knew in the crowd, and I spent most of my time feeling outside of things.  At the same time, people tapping my shoulder to ask me to move or signing “excuse me”, and being otherwise treated politely like a true member of Deaf Culture, made me feel like I belonged.  While things were remarkably similar to the Homecoming activities I remembered from my own days in high schoo, the lack of noise and the lack of attention payed to the game really marked this event as different.  I think that if I knew more people there I would have loved going to Homecoming.  As it was I had a very good time and would certainly go again.

I just found out the other day that September is Deaf Awareness month.  It’s exciting that there’s a whole month dedicated to learning more about deafness.  In honor of that, I’m going to jot down a few things that several of my Deaf teachers have said happen frequently to them that they consider extremely rude, or think people are nuts for doing.

First of all, there are two polite ways of getting a deaf person’s attention.  If they are accross the room from you, you can wave your hand at them, or ask someone near them to tap them on the shoulder.  If they are near you, you can feel free to tap them on the shoulder yourself, by using one finger and tapping two or three times.   Don’t wave your hand in front of someone’s face, don’t ever throw things to get someone’s attention, and don’t tap someone’s arm incessantly until they turn around.  Let’s face it, you wouldn’t like it if someone tried to get your attention those ways, so don’t do it to others and they’ll appreciate it a lot!

If two people are signing to each other and there’s no way arround them except by going through their conversation, it’s OK to do so.  Just walk right on through as quickly as possible, and if you know the sign for excuse me, you can go ahead and sign it.  If not that’s OK too, just try to be as quick as possible.  If you try to go underneath their signing hands, people will look at you as if you’re nuts.  Not only that, but you’ve disturbed their conversation because they’re looking at you and thinking ‘what the hell?’ instead of briefly pausing to let you through, then resuming their conversation naturally. 

If you’re meeting a deaf person and you don’t know ASL, follow a few simple guidelines and your communication will be easier.  First, always look at them straight foreward, and don’t let your eyes wander like they would in a hearing conversation.  Don’t try to enunciate… it distorts your mouth shapes and makes it harder for a deaf person to lip read than if you were speaking naturally.  Let them use paper and pencil, or whatever you have lying around to write with and on, and admit if you don’t understand something.  It will save you lots of embarrasment later if you just admit you don’t know what they’re talking about, rather than agree to something you aren’t OK with or look like a fool by saying yes to something that isn’t a yes or no question.

So there you go… several simple things that will keep you from looking rude or completely nuts in the presence of deaf people.  Happy Deaf Awareness month!!


ASLManners are different in Deaf Culture than they are  in the Hearing world, although many things are also the same.   Here are some of the differences I’ve noticed while out in the Deaf community: 

When you arrive, say Hi to everyone.  Be prepared to tell them your name, your teacher’s name, and where you are learning ASL.  Many people will also want to know why you are studying ASL in the first place. 

When you’re talking with someone, try to remember as much about them as possible, even if you feel it’s a casual conversation.  Most Deaf people retain information like a sponge and will remember you completely the next time you meet.  You’ll look really rude when they come up to you and want to talk about that hobby you mentioned last time and you think ‘who is this?’

Deaf people are really friendly.  It’s not uncommon for them to give you a huge smile and a warm hug, even if you’ve only met them once before.  They’re not being overly touchy-feely, they’re just welcoming you back.

If for some reason the telephone rings or there’s a knock at the door, don’t just leave to answer it.  Say “excuse me” then indicate that there’s a knock at the door, or a telephone call, and you’ll be right back.  That way the person you’re talking to doesn’t think you just up and walked away because you didn’t like them.

If you’re late for class (or other events), don’t just sneak in quietly and sit down.  In a visual environment like an ASL class, you’ve already disturbed everyone as much as if you’d blown a trumpet as you walked in.  Briefly let everyone know why you were late, and then quickly take your seat so class can resume.

If there’s an ASL signer around it’s incredibly rude to speak English in their presence, even if they aren’t a part of your group.  It leaves them completely out of the conversation, and they feel frustrated.

When you are leaving, tell several people that you’re going.  That way when someone asks where you are, others can tell them.  Never just up and leave without saying anything.

Remember the golden rule of manners:  If you aren’t sure what would be most polite, just think about those around you and what would be nicest for them.


aslin Deaf Culture, it’s considered incredibly rude to only speak around deaf people if you know any Sign Language at all.  I completely understand this.  I get why people become upset.  It must be so frustrating to watch people completely leave you out when you know they can communicate with you.  It’s almost like they’re deliberately trying to exclude you.  I’m completely on board, and I always sign with people who know sign if there are deaf people around, whether the person I’m talking to is hearing or not. 

I’ve been to a few Deaf Events in my community and there is inevitably the new ASL 1 student who doesn’t know much sign, or the tag-along boyfriend who doesn’t know sign at all.  I don’t want to be rude and not acknowledge these people, and I know the really nice thing to do would be to talk with them for a little bit, but I’m not really sure what the protocol would be for this.  What is a hearing girl to do?

Usually I say a quick hi to the non-signing people, and then ignore them.  When I get into conversations with ASL 1 students who want to speak with me because they don’t understand that well, usually I sign as I speak.  I know this isn’t real grammatically correctASL, but at least I’m trying not to exclude people… right?  That’s what I try and tell myself.  And then I try to get out of the conversation as quickly as possible.  I know my ASL skills are far from perfect, and I don’t want to be a snob, but I know I’ve come a long way from ASL 1.  Yet my ASL skills aren’t advanced enough to help anyone along.  If the two of us are here to improve our ASL skills, I’m probably a bad person to be speaking to.  I can only begin to guess what kind of janky, bad-grammar ASL I’m speaking right now. 

When in Rome, do as the Roman’s do.  So here’s my question:  Is it OK if I’m in a conversation where I’m talking out loud to someone while attempting to sign if there are deaf people around?  If it isn’t, what should I be doing instead?  I think there are a lot of people out there who would benefit from an answer.

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