:: Nashuatelegraph.com: – Sign language students come for many different reasons ::

Sign language students come for many different reasons

By MICHAEL BRINDLEY, Telegraph Staff
mbrindley@nashuatelegraph.com
Published: Sunday, May. 6, 2007

NASHUA – For Kyle Labrecque, learning sign language could mean saving a life.

A firefighter and EMT for Nashua Fire Rescue for eight years, Labrecque said he has found himself in situations where he needed to communicate with deaf or hard of hearing people after responding to an emergency, but couldn’t break through.

He tried writing things out on paper, but it proved ineffective, he said.

“It’s frustrating for us and them,” he said. “I just wanted to learn some of the language, maybe just to comfort them.”

Labrecque signed up for the Adult Learning Center’s sign language course, paying for it out of his own pocket. He has since signed up for the advanced second session, which started last week.

Students in the class come for different reasons, but all have the same goal. Taking the course was an eye opener, said Labrecque. He had no idea how complex the language was.

“It’s really confusing. It’s not like learning French or Spanish,” he said.

The Adult Learning Center in Nashua has been offering classes in American Sign Language for seven years, said instructor Vicki McIver. The most recent six-week course wrapped up last month, and, due to the interest of those in the class, a second, more advanced class was offered. The course costs $90, and the book and DVD cost $60.

McIver has been teaching and interpreting sign language for 34 years.

At a class two weeks ago, McIver started class by telling her students a story about how the recent flooding affected her house. At one point, she was mimicking the movements of a fish, but the students knew exactly what she was talking about.

Julie Goulet, a speech therapist in Merrimack, said it was McIver’s unique approach that helped her learn the language.

“Vicki would tell us things about her life only in sign language, and we would have to try and understand it,” she said. “That really helped.”

Goulet uses sign language to communicate with some of the children she works with. Some of them are non-verbal or haven’t yet learned how to speak.

“It helps them to communicate and decreases a lot of their frustrations,” she said.

Goulet had taken a sign language class in college but had forgotten much of what she learned. Taking the course in Nashua, Goulet was able to refresh herself on the basics, but said she also enjoyed meeting other people interested in sign language.

McIver said her inspiration to get involved in the area of sign language came from an unusual place: a 1948 movie called “Johnny Belinda.”

The film tells the story of a young deaf girl who is raped, and, years later, has to prove that she is fit to raise her child. McIver saw the film when she was 11.

“It was that powerful to me,” she said. “I told myself that I have got to learn how to do this. She was expressing all the love she had . . . and all the anger she had, all in her hands.”

She begins the six-week course with the history and culture of deaf people, which she said is drastically different. She moves on to the alphabet and common phrases. She said that like with any language, there is a learning curve for most people.

“It takes years to become fluent,” she said. A significant factor is how much a person uses sign language. If people are using it on a daily basis, they’re going to learn it more quickly, she said.

Not everyone in the class has direct involvement with deaf people.

Linda Casazza is a paraprofessional at Hollis Upper Elementary School. One of her primary responsibilities is to oversee lunch at the school. Things can get chaotic in the cafeteria, she said, so she was looking for an easier way to communicate with the students.

She had learned some basic sign language, which she used with students.

“When you’ve got 150 students and hands going up every five seconds, it makes it very easy to understand what they need,” she said.

But “looking at signs in the book and actually learning the correct way to do them are two different things.”

Through taking the course, Casazza said she has been able to teach the correct way of signing to students at school. There is now a poster in the lunchroom with different signs on it.

“They think it’s great,” she said. “It’s something new they can now go home with. It makes them feel like they have a leg up.”

Lena Pinheiro of Nashua said she’s always been intrigued by sign language since reading about Helen Keller. Her reason for taking it is more preemptive – should the occasion arise where she will need it, now she knows the basics.

“Maybe one day I’ll be needed to communicate in sign,” she said. “Who knows, maybe you’ll be the one that makes a difference.”

She is fluent in Portuguese and dabbles in other languages,but admits she still has a lot to learn in sign language. It’s a unique form of communication, she said.

“You’re basically learning a different way of looking at the world,” she said.

McIver said she has taught all different types of people for different reasons, including parents of deaf children who had never been able to communicate before.

“I think that’s probably one of the most powerful rewards that I’ve received,” she said. “This mother could talk with her son for the first time.” continued

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