Before the start of the spring 2015 semester, I had a meeting with Randy Jordan, who works in Berkeley’s Disabled Students’ Program and specializes in providing services for Deaf and Hard of Hearing students. After a terrible first semester, I talked to him about having American Sign Language (ASL) interpreting accommodations for my classes, rather than captioning.
Randy smiled and agreed. In fact, he had already made the appropriate requests for the semester. But to my surprise, he also mentioned that he requested transliteration sign language interpreting, which I assume he meant to be Signed Exact English (SEE). He said:
I did not request for ASL. I requested sign language for transliteration. That’s based on my professional opinion of you. I don’t want you to be in a class and not understand what’s going on.
I did not respond, and our meeting concluded shortly after. It’s clear that Randy thought my sign language skills with regards to American Sign Language were not up to speed.
I’ve thought a lot about what he said to me. I’m not angry at all — Randy is a great guy. In fact, I’m happy he brought this up, because to me it’s reminder that my ASL skills are raw and unrefined. I am far better at reading, writing, and speaking English as compared to ASL. When Randy and I speak in our meetings, we usually sign. (He is the child of deaf adults.) During our conversations, Randy must have observed a tendency for me to lean towards SEE over ASL style.
Looking at my background, this shouldn’t be a surprise. While I learned sign language when I was two or three years old, I don’t know how much of it was formal ASL, or how much of it was just a sequence of memorize-this-sign-then-memorize-this-sign. I don’t remember formally studying ASL grammar, such as how one should manage facial expressions when signing particular questions.
As I progressed through my education, I also distanced myself from other deaf students (I’m excluding the hard of hearing ones now, since they usually had very limited skills). At the start of elementary school, I might have had multiple classes a day where all the students were deaf or hard of hearing. But as I got older, both (1) the frequency of such classes and (2) the ratio of deaf-to-hearing students would jointly decrease. Then I went to college, where I was the only deaf student for four years, and now I’m in graduate school.
Who would I sign with? My brother, sometimes, but we don’t see each other that often now, and we were always sloppy signing to each other. It’s one of the interesting things about knowing someone for so long: even if he communicates so poorly, I can still understand what he’s said due to years of practice.
Throughout college, I did have interpreters who used ASL, and I think I understood them reasonably well (and my academic performance might offer supporting evidence). It’s clear that I am better at reading ASL than speaking it. Unfortunately, the only way I’ll be able to get better at my ASL is if I can practice with others.