Chamber hosts sign language class- Fulton Sun

Chamber hosts sign language class

By MARCUS WILKINS
The Fulton Sun

May 23, 2007

A full room of attentive students sat in the banquet wing at Sir Winston’s Restaurant and Pub, focusing on Missouri School for the Deaf communications specialist Sharon Egbert.

Barbara Garrison.jpgAs the instructor went through American Sign Language letters, numbers and basic words, the beginners in attendance clumsily tried to duplicate the gestures.

Some concentrated on Egbert’s fluid motions, while some stared at their own hands, laughing at fingers that wouldn’t do their bidding.

The Kingdom of Callaway Chamber of Commerce hosted a sign language class Tuesday morning as the first step in an effort to improve communication between the hearing community and the deaf community. Local business people, educators and city officials were in attendance while Egbert and Missouri School for the Deaf superintendent Barbara Garrison taught the bare vocabulary bones of ASL.

“The grammar of American Sign Language is location (of your hands) and expression,” said Garrison with a wide grin. “Always smile – unless you’re talking about taxes.”

The two-hour crash course covered everything from etiquette, to socialization in the deaf community, to civil rights. For the enthusiastic group, it was an eye-opening experience.

“There are so many deaf people in town and we run into them frequently,” said Bill Beilschmidt of Fulton. “I would like to be able to have at least a minimal conversation with them sometimes, especially if they ask questions.

“My wife is also losing her hearing, so at some point, we might have to use more and more sign language.”

The first half of the class was spent learning days of the week, opposites like hot and cold, and phrases like “nice to meet you.” After a break, Garrison introduced a short segment from the acclaimed PBS documentary “Through Deaf Eyes.” The film features comedian and recent MSD commencement speaker C.J. Jones, as well as Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin.

“We wanted to give people an opportunity to do some very basic signs so that our deaf visitors will feel welcome,” said Chamber of Commerce executive director Nancy Lewis. “Also, we want the people in local businesses to feel comfortable communicating.”

Lewis said that, although there aren’t further classes officially scheduled yet, it is something the Chamber should emphasize in the future.

Garrison agreed.

“One of the reasons we are here today is to start offering these things to the community,” she said. “We in America have done a lousy job in deaf education because we are still struggling with trying to fix that (deaf) child, … because, quite honestly, deaf people don’t think they’re broken.”

As Garrison and Egbert concluded the presentation, everyone in the class lifted their hands skyward, shaking their palms in the sign for applause.

“I work with non-hearing people, and I wanted to learn to communicate better with them,” said Senior Center administrator Clarissa Gooch. She and several others in attendance said the “do’s and don’ts” segment on how to communicate with the deaf was particularly helpful.

“I think people are afraid that they might offend,” said Gooch. “I’m learning that ignoring is more offensive than trying to communicate.”

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