Storytelling is featured in every language. American Sign Language, or ASL, is the art of storytelling in deaf culture. ASL is a visual language that is expressed by movements and motions of the hands. Maria O’Neil Ruddock and Sandra Hatibovic of the Community Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing at Cleveland Hearing and Speech Center explain the significance of ASL and how to formulate a discussion around ASL with your children.
“You may be in a situation or environment where your voice is not being heard,” Hatibovic says. “That feels very upsetting because you want to be involved in the situation. If you are not able to express yourself, your feelings, your frustrations, your opinions, if you don’t have a way to communicate that with other individuals, it can be very difficult. That’s how deaf individuals feel.”
Hatibovic herself is a deaf individual and has a large deaf family; her eldest child is hearing and her two younger children are deaf. She emphasizes that parents of deaf children should expose their children to deaf culture and sign language.
“Parents need to be involved in the conversation,” Hatibovic says. “Just as hearing individuals are picking up things, the same goes for kids learning sign language. Kids will ask a thousand whys every day, and the same thing goes for kids who sign.”
For parents of hearing children, it is equally important to expose them to sign language. If a child or parent meets someone who is deaf, engage with them. If you are going to a deaf center, bring your child and help them learn. Hatibovic also highlights that there are plenty of resources online such as YouTube videos to help learn about sign language and formulate a discussion around ASL with your children.
“Some people may not know what to do or how to communicate with a deaf individual,” Hatibovic says. “Technology is incredible. You can take out your phone and type a note or ask the deaf individual if they feel comfortable writing. If you offer options or follow the lead of the deaf individual, that is extremely well received.”
Hatibovic also explains that there are some universal gestures, such as ‘what time is it?’ ‘eat,’ ‘sit down,’ and others that can help articulate what you are trying to say to the deaf individual.
“Deaf individuals will see that you are putting in the effort, and that is very appreciated,” Hatibovic says. “We will see that you are interested in talking to us instead of giving up. Deaf individuals do not expect everyone to know sign language. Just be willing to communicate.”
Learning a few simple signs, such as ‘hello’ or ‘how are you?’ are great ways to engage in conversation with a deaf individual. Hatibovic says it is better to try and make an effort than walk away and ignore the deaf individual.
O’Neil Ruddock, director of the center, says it is important for the hearing world to recognize how valuable it is to try. She explains that hearing individuals may feel awkward and may want to help but feel guilty because they cannot communicate. She explains that it is important for parents and children to look at the deaf individual and make them feel comfortable.
“It is important to try your best,” O’Neil Ruddock says. “This doesn’t just apply to deaf people – there are many people in this world who communicate differently and may have communication disorders. It is important for parents and children to embrace people’s differences and honor and respect the dignity of the deaf individual. Find ways to honor the deaf person’s request.”
In 2018, Starbucks opened its first signing store in Washington, D.C. Hatibovic ordered at that Starbucks last year and felt very comfortable in the establishment. She did not need to bring her phone to type a message or bring a piece of paper to write her order like she usually does at hearing establishments. Establishments like these are a step in the right direction in making restaurants more inclusive for everyone.
“It was so interesting because hearing individuals came in and had to use their phone to order because they did not know sign language,” Hatibovic says. “It is rare to see a business catered towards deaf individuals, but when the opportunity was available, I felt so normal. If someone knows how to sign at work or a restaurant, it is really rewarding.”
Hatibovic highlights that even the popular kids show CoComelon has characters who sign, which can help kids learn how to sign. There are lots of ways to teach your kids signs. Children can sign before they can verbalize. Hatibovic’s daughter’s first sign was the word ‘milk,’ when she was five months old. It is important to teach kids about sign language and even learn a few signs to help them communicate with others.
“When deaf people are in an environment where no one else knows ASL, that impacts their social life, where they work, their education, their daily activities,”
Hatibovic says. “Being able to communicate with others is so important.”
Common Words to Sign
Before learning how to sign, it is important to be aware of the hand shape, palm orientation, movement, location and non-manual signals of each sign. For example, the word ‘me’ uses the index finger (hand shape) on the chest (location) pointing towards yourself (movement), and the palm is facing down, and there is no facial expression.
Hello: When signing hello, your dominant hand is coming out from your forehead. The arm is bent and the edge of your index finger touches your forehead and then pulls away.
Yes: Using your dominant hand, clench your fist and shake your fist twice up and down. This movement mimics your head nodding.
No: Take your index and middle finger and move them up and down against your thumb. The thumb also moves.
Help: Take your dominant hand and form a thumbs up. Take your non-dominant hand and hold that hand out. Place the thumbs up on the non-dominant hand and move it up and down twice.
Please: Take your hand and place it flat against your chest in a circular motion. If you are right handed, the thumb is closest to your neck.
Thank you: The hand comes out from the chin. The tips of your fingers, excluding the thumb, touch the chin and then pull away.
Want: Take both your hands and slightly bend your fingers, and have your hands slightly away from your chest. Then, bring in your hands towards your chest.
Again/repeat: Have your non-dominant hand flat, palm up. Then, take your dominant hand and place your four fingers (excluding the thumb) in the middle of your non-dominant hand. Bring the dominant hand in and out.
Eat: Take your dominant hand, press your four fingers against your thumb, and tap your fingers to your mouth once. To sign food, make the same hand shape but tap your fingers to your mouth twice.
What: Take both your hands and slightly bend your fingers. Bring your hands out and in (side to side). Bring in your eyebrows and lean forward.