BROOKVILLE — Sign languages classes are being offered at the Rebecca M. Arthurs' Library to raise awareness, and lower the stigma on deaf people. Many people make the mistake of assuming there are no deaf people in the area, when in fact the instructor of the classes knows of six in the Brookville.
The course is taught by ASL instructor Rita Woodard, who is the child of deaf adults, or CODA in the deaf community. Both of her parents are deaf, and met while attending a school for the deaf in Pittsburgh. Her first language was ASL, then she learned to speak later.
“I don’t know how anybody gets to this stage of life without knowing [ASL],” Woodard said of her experience, “but obviously here you all are, you made it here.” she joked with her class.
She is not a certified interpreter simply because she chose not to take the test and have to pay money to keep having the certificate renewed. She explained she doesn’t feel the need to pay for a certificate when she’s done this all her life. It was the first skill she learned.
She also taught her children sign language from the time they were young. She told the class that babies as young as six months old can be taught sign language because they will mimic behaviors. She and her children use it for easy communication even in their everyday lives today.
Woodard is now the power of attorney for four deaf people, two of which are her parents. She is passionate about the rights of the deaf community because its a common misconception that there are none around here. She said they are one of the most erased groups of people.
She began teaching ASL to others when she was about 16 years old, with her mother. Then once she was so old her mom passed all the teaching on to her. She now teaches under the name Sing Language 4 Me.
Until recently, most of her classes were through the Clarion library. She also teaches the staff at organizations that work with hearing impaired individuals. She hopes to expand farther out to teach more of the areas around her.
When she teaches a class she encourages all her students to take what they learn home, and teach it to someone else as well. She says the best way to remember everything is to teach someone, then they also have someone they can use their new skill with to practice.
“Don’t let anyone tell you ASL is just English. Its not,” Woodard explained.
The way she describes it is a total figurative language with your whole body. Woodard explained to her students that most deaf people socialize standing up because they speak with their whole body.
Unlike the English language which we would make full sentences with, ASL is very simplistic. She explained that what would take a hearing person about 20 words to say, a deaf person will say with three or four words in sign language.
The example she gave for this was someone saying “I have to go to the store for milk because we ran out when Johnny decided to eat cereal yesterday.” A deaf person will just sign “going to store, need milk,” because they don’t need all the details.
The first class started with learning the alphabet. Woodard told her students that finger spelling is the number one thing to learn, because many words start with a letter formation on the hand. She said they shouldn’t rely on that as a way to communicate with the hearing impaired. There are manual signs for every word. Proper nouns are the only words to be spelled out completely.
Once the class has the alphabet down, she taught them numbers one through ten. She then moved into some simple words for the class that are good to know, like “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” and “why.” They also began to learn different words for family members like “brother,” “sister,” “son,” “daughter,” “grandmother,” and “grandfather.”
The class was encouraged to mouth the words as they signed them, as it help with communication. Woodard urged them not to try to speak full sentences though, since that’s just now how sign language works. She said it could confuse them when they were trying to sign.
Woodard kept her class light and fun as she taught. There was a large turnout for the first class, more than she had expected. The classes will continue each Wednesday for the next five weeks. They will be hearing from a guest speaker, a man with a cochlear implant, during one of their lessons.