American Sign Language @ DPL
by Otis D. Alexander
The Danville Public Library continues to connect to the community with numerous intellectual, cultural, and social action programs that will better serve its customers. In January 2007, the DPL partnered with the Danville Department of Social Services to offer instruction in American Sign Language (ASL), which is the primary sign language used by the Deaf community in the United States as well as in the English-speaking areas of Canada. This was the library’s second free ASL workshop offered to the community. The first was presented in spring 2006 and taught by Ricky Wilson, who is capital “D” Deaf1 and a former student at Gallaudet University. Gallaudet is the only university in the world where all programs and services are specifically designed to accommodate deaf and hard of hearing learners.
With a growing number of Deaf library customers, the leadership at DPL felt that the staff should at least be able to communicate effectively at a base level utilizing ASL. There is definitely a need for public servants to have an accurate understanding of sign language. In addition, Glenn Radcliff, director of Social Services, was contacted by the library director to collaborate on the much-needed project. Radcliff agreed that “Service-oriented agencies need to know how to communicate at many levels when serving the public, for we do not know who is going to come through our doors.” Radcliff had some of his staff members participate in the workshop, which consisted of eight one-hour sessions.“... we do not know
who is going to come
through our doors.”
It is estimated that more than 500,000 to 2,000,000 people in the United States are familiar with some aspect of ASL. (This estimate does not include Canada.) As indicated above, the Danville Public Library has more and more members of the Deaf community using its facilities.
The first session of eight classes, beginning January 8, was conducted by Dominic Davis, a secondary education major with minors in communication disorders and English at Northern Michigan University, while the second session was presented by Mary Womack, a registered nurse who studied ASL at the Danville Community College. Her session started on January 15 and ended January 29, 2007.
According to Davis, the best way to learn ASL is through a course taught by a Deaf person requiring constant interaction with the instructor. Womack agreed, even though neither instructor is deaf.
The workshops included total communication — a combination of ASL, finger spelling, facial signals such as raising and lowering of eyebrows while signing, body language, informal gestures, verbal communication finger spelling, the whole word approach, and body language including facial expressions.
Each participant in the workshop was encouraged to stand before the class and demonstrate either by finger spelling his or her name or simply asking questions using the whole word approach. By the third class, Circulation Supervisor Donna Cisneros was actually able to communicate effectively with the instructor as well as teach a class during his absence. She had never studied ASL prior to the workshop. Children’s Information Specialist Shirley Hughes says that she would like to see ASL incorporated into children’s programming as an activity for enrichment.
In the future, we hope that the library will be able to partner with the Danville Police and Sheriff’s Department. Mastery of ASL will humanize the contact between Deaf citizens and the city’s law enforcement officers. Taken with our other efforts, this will begin to demonstrate to the Deaf community that our library and city government really care about them and will do all that we can to anticipate their information needs and desires. Of course, all of the participants will be encouraged to get library cards.
1“Big ‘D’ Deaf” refers to a culture comprised of those who self-identify as part of the Deaf community, which is centered around the celebration of American Sign Language and relationships among Deaf people. Members of the Deaf community embrace their identity and resist labels that imply that they are “impaired” or less than whole people. Deaf persons are not identified based solely on the level of hearing loss, and there are some who self-identify as Deaf who might have more auditory functioning than others who “mainstream” through medical or other means. The Deaf community can include not only the clinically deaf and those with partial hearing, but also those who went to deaf schools, are children of deaf parents, or are sign language interpreters, among others. The community views being Deaf as an identity similar to ethnicity rather than as a physical impairment. — Ed.