There are many people throughout the world who communicate much differently than through speaking. They use their hands: communicating through sign language. It is estimated that between 100,000 to 500,000 people use sign language. American Sign Language or ASL was brought from France in the early 19th Century. There currently was no system for sign in place in America so local and French signs were mixed together to form a complete signing system.
The French connection to sign language is very important. It provided us with evidence that natural sign language actually existed. As students and teachers traveled across Europe demonstrating their new form of communication, a young minister by the name of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet became interested in what they were sharing. After many travels Gallaudet and a colleague (Clerc) returned to American to open the first and only school for deaf students located in Washington DC. As they worked together they were able to establish a sign language that met the needs of deaf children. Students used methodological signs or “Old Signed English”, as well as another type of sign language to communicate every day conversations. Gallaudet began to recognize that students’ had their own natural language. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet made a significant contribution to the world of the deaf. He passed his dream onto his son Edward Miner Gallaudet who made it a reality and became the first President of the college.
Today, many people would say that signs usually represent ideas, and not just single words. In fact, most signs are iconic; meaning that a visual image is often used to sign the idea. Animals fall into this category. For example, deer is represented by signing antlers; an elephant would be the trunk.
Some signs can be represented through actions. Some word examples of this are love and grow. And many of the older signs still remain the same today as in the year they came about; although the connection to its origin may not exist anymore.
Is sign language universal? While many countries use sign language, each has its own signing system. Recently, an international sign language has been developed that helps deaf persons from different countries communicate more easily. You can see how this might be helpful in international events such as the Olympic Games for the Deaf.
Today sign language is not just a language. To some it is an art and is used in many musical performances. This is an expressive way for deaf people to feel and hear in their own way the emotions or rhythm a song can portray. It is also being used in drama productions as a means of helping the deaf feel more a part of the hearing world.
American Sign Language has come a long way since its original creation. The deaf community is able to enjoy much more, and feel more a part of the hearing world. As we learn more about sign language remember that behind the signing is a person. As you communicate with them remember these important things:
•The hearing world is not better than the deaf world. They are just different.
•Always make eye contact with the deaf
•Being deaf is not a handicap.
•They can do everything we can do, or can’t for that matter.