Deaf community finds home at Georgetown with GU Signs

By:
03/05/2014

The Georgetown campus enjoys a privileged location in our nation’s capital, perched atop the Potomac, within walking distance of the National Mall and countless museums. All of this you can find in the stacks and stacks of mail Georgetown undoubtedly sent to your home in an attempt to persuade you to finally send in your enrollment deposit. (And, hey, apparently it worked.) What those shiny pamphlets failed to mention, though, is that Washington, D.C., also serves as the de facto capital of America’s Deaf community, and is home to the world’s only university for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, Gallaudet University.

For attending university in the largest Deaf hub in America, Georgetown students have precious little access to the Deaf community’s language, American Sign Language. ASL is a natural language, completely separate from English, with its own grammar and syntax resembling Mandarin Chinese more than English. Georgetown does not offer a single class in the language of our peers at Gallaudet, forcing interested students to trek to GW or Gallaudet for classes through the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area.

Attempting to fill that gap is GU Signs, an entirely student-run club offering free ASL lessons every other Thursday night, and of which I am a board member. The club also facilitates cultural field trips to places like Gallaudet’s campus and the ASL Poetry Slam at Busboys and Poets. All of this is aimed at filling in where Georgetown has left off in terms of getting Georgetown students acquainted with and involved in D.C.’s vibrant but little-publicized Deaf community, a task that Georgetown’s course offerings have insufficiently accomplished.

I originally became involved in the Deaf community sometime around middle school. I received my first hearing aid in the third grade, but for many years thought very little about my status as hard-of-hearing beyond being frustrated. I constantly misheard people and had to ask “What?” way more often than the other kids. The bulky speaker that sat on my desk in elementary school, amplifying my teacher’s voice and attracting my classmates’ attention did little to endear to me the idea of openly identifying as hard-of-hearing. I even took up the trombone in the fourth grade (why I was ever allowed near a brass instrument is anyone’s guess), and today I’m an appropriately loud, raucous, and out-of-tune member of the Georgetown Pep Band. Honestly, to people who don’t happen to glance at the funny bit of plastic in my left ear, I don’t seem all that Deaf. I certainly didn’t think of myself as such, even years after I got my first aid.

That changed for me when I found a YouTube video of a student interpreting “Party in the USA” (yes, Miley Cyrus, no shame) into ASL. I became completely infatuated with slowly copying each sign until I could sign the song myself from memory. The idea of there being a language that didn’t force me to strain my eyes staring at people’s mouths to figure out what they were saying was a revelation I welcomed. Slowly but surely, I learned more and more songs, and by high school, I was able to hold conversations in the language.

That’s not to say being hard-of-hearing or deaf (or knowing someone who is) is the only or even best reason to learn to sign. During the peak of GUSA campaign season, I can tell you from experience that opening the door to the seventh dorm-stormer in the last hour and answering them only in sign language is the surest way to escape hearing yet another election platform. Situations may even arise on the weekend when, for one reason or another, you’ve found yourself in the midst of a large crowd of people with music blaring in the background. As everyone else shouts to be heard, wouldn’t it be nice to have a conversation where you could listen with your eyes?  At the very least, you’d be less likely to lose your voice. The potential for sneaky cross-room conversation is also endless, as I can attest.

Georgetown students have endless reasons to learn to sign, yet so few of them do. This low number of students is partly the fault of the lack of convenient course offerings for students, but as we push for change, GU Signs stands ready to help you in your valiant quest to scare off doorknockers, or to ease the frustration of those who are tired of (and frankly not very good at) lip-reading, like yours truly. It’s time for Georgetown and its students to truly embrace their place in the middle of Deaf America, especially if it means one less knock on your door.

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Mary Bridget Smith


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