Sign language is based on the philosophy that vision is the most useful tool a deaf and/or hearing impaired person has to communicate and receive information, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. American Sign Language (ASL), believed to have originated over 200 years ago, is a complete, complex language that employs hand signs, as well as facial expressions and body postures. And, as with language in general, sign language often varies per foreign country. British Sign Language (BSL), for example, is not the same as ASL.
The World Federation of the Deaf says there are about 70 million deaf people worldwide who use a form of sign language as their first language. Ryan Vander Weide, a Winter Garden, Florida resident, would like to increase the number of people who use ASL. His whole household is fluent in sign language, including his wife, Jenna, and their three daughters. “I think it’s one of the most unique languages in the world,” he says. Why? Because many assume ASL is a hands-only dialect, but Ryan explains that the other language components – facial expression and body postures – are truly imperative. Emotion allows a sign to take on multiple meanings.
Although he was born hearing impaired in both ears, Ryan wasn’t diagnosed until age four. He then learned ASL in a kindergarten class geared toward deaf and/or hard of hearing students. He did, however, transition into a mainstream classroom and used hearing aids. It wasn’t until his collegiate years at the University of North Florida that he began using sign language interpreters because, he says, “some of the professors were concerned that I wasn’t getting all of the information in the classes.” The result? His grades improved, his feelings of missing out on information ceased and, perhaps most importantly, his appreciation of ASL being a powerful tool skyrocketed.
Ryan’s passion became his profession. Today, he works as a Deaf/Hard of Hearing Itinerant Teacher for the Orange County Public School System. He travels to elementary, middle and high schools to work with students who are hearing impaired. “It requires working on auditory skills and/or skills to help them understand their hearing loss so they can appropriately advocate for their accommodations for themselves.”
That drive to empower individuals with ASL recently inspired Ryan to form the Deaf Chat in Winter Garden group. The purpose is to connect people who want to increase their ASL skills and interact with the deaf community through a social setting. The casual, two-hour meet-ups are free and held monthly at Axum Coffee in downtown Winter Garden; and, while all levels are welcomed, Ryan encourages attendees to be ‘voice-off.’ The upbeat chatter is about anything and everything and, if attendees don’t understand something, they can ask the signer to repeat the sign slower or finger spell.
The first Deaf Chat meeting was held in October (2017) and the group’s Facebook page already has reached 100 members! Ryan admits that he is surprised by the high interest level but can see how the group is filling a gap. “I see lots of people taking [ASL] classes and notice that, when classes are finished, [they think] ‘what now?’” he describes. Ryan believes that social environments are especially effective for learning. “In classes, you get the foundations but, to make it worthwhile, it has to be used continuously with other people who are fluent in sign language.”
Attendees’ skill level has varied but the collective goal is to increase awareness and improve users’ vocabulary and proficiency. “I want people to know that this event is friendly [in] purpose. I don't want people to be intimidated because of the voice-off rule because, once you use the language, you will see how impactful it can be. You will notice a big difference in your skill when you use it often.”
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders maintains an online directory of organizations that provide information about hearing and language. If you’re interested in learning ASL, the National Association of the Deaf also suggests exploring resources through local/state colleges and universities, community centers and speech/hearing centers.