:: Deaf Tucson native’s sign language DVDs runaway hit | www.tucsoncitizen.com ® ::
MESA – Missy Keast is a natural born storyteller. Sitting in her sunlit Tempe kitchen with her year-old daughter, Spring, wriggling on her lap, the former actress beams when she describes the feeling she gets when she connects with an audience.
Keast, 41, became smitten with performing at a young age. At 11, at her parents’ urging, she gave an impromptu performance of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” at her uncle’s 25th birthday party.
The fact that Keast was born deaf didn’t deter her. The fact that she was signing her story wasn’t an obstacle, either.
“People really connected. I fell in love with that response,” Keast says. “The best part is when children are engaged in the story and are so immersed. That’s my passion.”
These days, this stay-at-home mother of two is sharing stories and connecting with hearing and deaf audiences alike on a much larger scale.
Combining acting experience with her American Sign Language teaching background,
Keast and her husband, Dave Victorson, launched a video production company a year ago. Based in Tempe, their American Sign Language DVDs range from finger spelling and numbering to sign language storytelling videos of children’s classics. The “Teaching Signs for Baby Minds” series has become a runaway hit.
Growing up the youngest of five children in Tucson, Keast (who conversed with the Tribune with the aid of an interpreter) says because she has a sister who’s also deaf, she was fortunate to grow up in a household that was well-versed in American Sign Language: Her family knew how to sign by the time she arrived.
Keast’s sign language videos are not only being snatched up by families looking to communicate with loved ones who are unable to hear. The videos, she says, also have become popular with hearing parents looking to communicate more efficiently with their newborns.
This trend of preverbal communication is growing, says Keast.
“Children can sign to communicate their needs and feelings well before they can voice,” says Keast, explaining that while babies’ vocal cords may not be developed, infants still have the innate skills to move their hands. She says American Sign Language helps to remove that barrier of frustration of not being understood for parent and child.
Keast’s “Teaching Signs for Baby Minds” series – which also includes flash cards – comes in three parts: “Everyday Signs,” which teaches about 50 basic-needs signs such as mealtime, bedtime and family signs; “Concepts and Combinations,” which tackles more advanced topics such as colors, numbers and simple directions; and “Dictionary and Alphabet,” which continues with 150 additional signs and name spellings. The couple is involved in the entire process, from writing the scripts and editing video to meeting distribution demands.
Keast says her products stand out from other DVDs on the market because American Sign Language is her first language.
“It’s important for people to learn from a native user,” says Keast, explaining her language is more than meets the eye. “ASL has its own grammatical features, facial expressions and gestures.”
Keast’s and Victorson’s older daughter, Sage, now 3, is proof that a baby can become bilingual at an early age.
Keast began signing with Sage when she was a newborn – at 6 months she signed “bird” – while her hearing father helped her with English.
Keast still takes time out to tell stories to children in person. The first Thursday of the month, she can be found mesmerizing youngsters with her readings at Changing
Hands Bookstore in Tempe, which carries her DVDs.
When Keast performs, she takes center stage; she doesn’t sign the story for another speaker. The English interpreter stands off to the side, translating Keast’s sign language.
Keast says she enjoys the children’s inquisitiveness and the creativity they show when trying to communicate with her.
“Some children invent their own signs during the storytelling to communicate with me. It’s really an awesome experience.”