Just recently I went to cheerleading camp. There I met four Deaf

Just recently I went to cheerleading camp. There I met four Deaf girls. They were the only thing that made me want to stay at camp longer. It was very interesting to my friend and I. Even though they couldn’t hear, they were the funniest people to be with.
The reason I’m writing is because I’m really interested in how to talk sign language in bigger signs so if I see them, I’ll be able to talk to them. It’s very important to me. I was watching a show the other day and a little Deaf kid got lost and everybody was trying to talk to him in words; they had no idea he was deaf until someone came along who knows sign language. If I see someone like that who needs help, I want to be able to help them. Sign language is something I would never take for granted. I want to know if there’s anything you can send me that will help me learn bigger signs.
—Tammy Kirk
Fairfax, Missouri
All you need to remember is that normal “signing space” extends from the top of the head to the waist, and from shoulder to shoulder. When communicating with another Deaf person, make sure to give her enough space to sign freely and to get a clear, unimpeded view of your signs. Signers tend to stand a bit further away from each other than hearing people do while talking. A comfortable distance – at least an extended arm’s length – ensures good readability. Ask those you’re signing to. They’ll show you.
The important thing is to get into practice and, if possible, find someone’s who skillful in signing to practice with.
That makes it more fun.  
“I understand it is bad manners to watch people Signing without their knowing that you also Sign.
But is it bad manners to interrupt people who are Signing and
tell them that you are taking courses in ASL even if you sign in English?”
I understand it is bad manners to watch people signing without their knowing that you also Sign. But there’s always that tendency for a student to see if you can understand anything. Is it bad manners to interrupt such people and tell them that you are taking courses in ASL even if you sign in English?
I’m writing this in response to an article our ASL teacher gave us, reprinted from DEAF LIFE, “ASL: What is it?” [See Chapter 1.] And as it says, ASL is a beautiful and expressive language and a pleasure to learn and observe.
Thanks for your time and help.
Roger Mindel
Wheaton, Maryland
For all practical purposes, there is no such thing as a “private” ASL conversation in public—that is, within eyeshot of other people. What two Deaf people are discussing is out in the open for everyone else to see.
Signs can be read straight across a crowded room, a campus quad, or from a balcony or window several stories up! Signing conversationalists in a “Hearing” environment rely on the non-comprehension of the surrounding hearing crowd to safeguard the confidentiality of their talk—that is, they assume that since nobody else will understand what they’re talking about, they’re “protected.” Anyone who wants to have a private talk in an ASL environment (such as the Gallaudet campus) has to duck behind the shrubbery, use a jacket as a “sign-shield” (holding the jacket out with one hand, signing with the other), or adopt a smaller, discreetly formed, disguised style of signing that snoopers will find harder to read—the visual equivalent of a whisper. In some public signing environments, like a college cafeteria, club, lobby, or bus, it’s fair game to watch others signing and to join in.
It’s not bad manners to enter a conversation, but it should never be an intrusion. It all depends on the situation and whom you’re with. You have to ascertain the mood of the interchange—if it’s casual and relaxed, chit-chat style, and you’re reasonably certain the Deaf people will accept your presence, you can draw near, wait for a suitable opening, gesture/wave for attention (or use the gentle shoulder-pat approach), and sign, “Oh, you’re Deaf? Ah, good! I know some ASL,” or “Hello, I saw you signing. I’m taking an ASL class now,” or the like. Be prepared to introduce yourself, fingerspell your name, and give your namesign. The more skillful your signing is, the easier it will be for you. You can explain that you’re signing in English (PSE) because you’re just starting to grasp ASL syntax, but you intend to improve your ASL.
Deaf people meeting each other for the first time often converse for 5 or 10 minutes, then exchange their names‑usually fingerspelling it first, then giving the namesign, and possibly an explanatory comment about why they have that particular namesign—before they part. Be prepared for this. It’s a normal part of ASL-based interaction. You, of course, can ask about their namesigns—if they have one, and if so, what significance it may have. This makes a good icebreaker and shows that you are savvy about namesigns.
There’s no real way to predict how others will react. Some will undoubtedly be warm, bemused. Others may give you the “freeze-out” treatment. Use your intuition and play it by eye. Pay careful attention to their expressions. If you get a discouraging response (scowls, frowns, cold stares, sour sneers, shrugs, or “Well, I-don’t-know” grimaces), you should politely but assertively and quickly excuse yourself and exit, or simply back out of that interchange. If you’re lucky enough to get a welcoming response, make the best of it. This is the best practice you can get—real life.
Let the others control the conversation. Listen and watch. You can make a learning game of it—see how much you understand, if you can keep up with the lightning pace of ASL interchanges—if they continue using ASL near you. As we’ve mentioned twice, Deaf people often politely “code-switch” to PSE to make it easier for the hearing participant or onlooker, so it isn’t at all easy for hearing persons to drop by and watch an authentic ASL interchange at close range, and to participate. Still, it can be a challenge to keep up with a PSE conversation. Be confident, be alert, be sensitive, learn, and have fun.
Visual tags: about namesigns
A namesign is a personalized, distinctive sign, often but not invariably based on the first initial of a person’s first or last name, and which is used to refer specifically to that person in social or formal conversations. (In that sense, it’s unlike a nickname.) A namesign is always bestowed by a Deaf person and can be a humorous or affectionate way of commemorating a salient detail of a person’s appearance, ethnic identity, habits, passions, favorite colors or accessories, or quirks. It can even be a bit of sign-play or a visual pun.1
For example, if Arthur or Amanda are redheads, their namesign could be an “A” made near the temple. If Gwen is a good dancer, her namesign could be a “dancing G.” And if Ed has a motorcycle that he’s fond of zooming around on, his namesign could indicate a helmet or handlebars.
A namesign’s location is can be anywhere on the head, face, arm, wrist, hand, or torso, or in front of the body, in the signing space.
It’s not considered insulting for a person to receive a namesign based on a physical peculiarity, even a blemish such as a prominent wart or mole, obesity, tallness, or shortness. Namesigns don’t have to be descriptive, though; they can be abstract. The important thing is that they are unique—that no one else has the same namesign.
Some namesigns have colorful histories. For example, the namesign given to Dr. William C. Stokoe, a clawed 5-finger handshape touched to the right forehead, represents the cockade on a Scottish bonnet (tam). Stokoe celebrated his Scottish heritage with great enthusiasm, going so far as to practice playing the bagpipes on Kendall Green (which only annoyed those who could hear him), and dressing up in full kit (kilt, sporran, bonnet, etcetera) on occasion.2
A similarly affectionate namesign was given to Dr. Elisabeth A. Zinser in the aftermath of DPN: “E-on-the-heart.” That signified that she “had her heart in the right place.”
The great Deaf leader Fred Schreiber, upon his entrance to Gallaudet College, when he was 15, tried to grow a beard to convince the ladies that he was actually 21. The wispy results inspired his namesign, beard. Schreiber was also Jewish, and his namesign resembled the old ASL sign for “Jew.” And, yes, he carried that namesign for the rest of his life.
Arthur L. Roberts, the NAD’s 11th president, and a dignified but unostentatious character, somehow acquired the namesign “Rooster” during his stint at Gallaudet College—possibly from his jaunty stride. (He was diminutive in stature, only 5′ 2″.) No one knows why or how; the namesign just stuck to him.
Laurent Clerc’s namesign (a “U” or “H” brushed twice gently downwards, against the right cheek) depicts the scar that disfigured his right cheek. (When he was a year old, he fell from his highchair into a kitchen fireplace, and carried the scar for the rest of his life). This sign was used during his lifetime.
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet’s namesign symbolized the spectacles he always wore, with an initialized “G.” This sign is also used for “Gallaudet University,” and has been incorporated, in graphic form (joined arcs), into its new logo.3
Deaf people devise and use namesigns for teachers, administrators, public figures, leaders, and presidents. These can be “nice” or “nasty,” depending on the signer’s feelings about them!
Is it acceptable for two hearing persons to use signs to communicate privately across a crowded bar or restaurant?
After reading your book For Hearing People Only I have a question that I do not remember seeing answered: I am taking a sign language class and sometimes I will see one of my fellow students out in the town. My question is—is it acceptable for two or more hearing people to use signs to communicate privately across a crowded bar or restaurant? Thanks, —Dan Tabacheck Springdale, Pennsylvania
To the best of our knowledge, nobody holds the copyright to ASL any more than any person, organization, or interest group holds a copyright to the English language. ASL is available to anyone who needs it and uses it—its speakers. Getting a good foundation in signing can be a bit tricky, but if you live near signing Deaf people, go to school with them, socialize with them, do business with them, or work with them, you’ll be afforded plenty of opportunities for learning. We encourage everyone to pick up the basics.
As we’ve already pointed out, signing has a multitude of applications, including underwater communication, fires (the roar of a fully-engaged fire can make it impossible to communicate by shouting), when you suspect your hotel room is bugged . . . and, yes, across a crowded public space such as a bar or restaurant.
Is it okay for hearing persons to use ASL with each other in public? Why not? If they know it and use with respect, they should put it to use. (We’re sure that ASL interpreters do it all the time.) That said, they should be prepared for a few possibilities:
Snide or bigoted comments made casually behind the signers’ backs, but within earshot, by persons who think that signing is weird and that Deaf people are freaks. ASL interpreters, who are trained to deal with all manner of situations, have a neat way of turning the insult back on the bigot—by letting him /her know that they’ve heard the insult. People, who make snide remarks about Deaf people think they have a free license because the object of their scorn can’t hear them, right? Well, not all of those signers are deaf! Once in a while, circumstances permitting, an ignoramus gets an education.
Catching the attention of a Deaf person who, curiosity aroused, may approach one or both signers and strike up a conversation. The first thing the Deaf person says will likely be, “Hi—you Deaf?” The second thing will be, “Where did you learn to sign?” or “What school did you go to?” These questions shouldn’t be construed as threatening. Deaf people have an irresistible curiosity to know where other signers are from, what their backgrounds are, and where they stand in relation to the Deaf community. If you’ve learned to sign from a Deaf friend, say so. You will probably be asked to name the friend. This isn’t a problem if said friend is on good terms with you and the questioner. But if you learned to sign from someone who is no longer your friend, or someone who’s heartily disliked by the questioner, beware. Be prepared for those possibilities, too. Know how to handle an awkward situation with tact and humor. Remember, the signing community is a small world! Everyone seems to know everyone else, or at least to be acquainted with everyone else through the grapevine.
Being overseen by another person, Deaf or hearing, who understands sign language. In some places, this is unlikely, but in others—say, if you’re carrying on a conversation in an area where there’s heavy Deaf traffic—you might as well accept that whatever you sign will be seen by others. If you’re just talking casually, there’s no danger. But if you’re gossiping or exchanging potentially sensitive or damaging information, it’s best to refrain from being seen. You also don’t want to do anything that could make you look foolish—e.g., signing in a sloppy, hammy fashion, as though you’re drunk, or exchanging “socially restricted” signs. Discretion should be the spice that seasons all public communication. Use ASL signs (again) with respect.
There’s always a possibility that someone may be recording your signing on video. The world is full of eyes, smartphones, and spycams. So think about how you’d want to be represented on video—as a savvy signer or a sign-abusing dork.
Incidentally, when entering a restaurant or other public space, a Deaf group will typically scan the room to see if there are other people signing. If they see someone they know and like, fine. If they don’t want to be overseen, they’ll be extremely discreet about their signing and will station themselves in a relatively secluded area.
When you find yourself in a situation where you want to communicate with someone across the hubbub of a crowded space, but the noise makes voice communication impractical, you’ll be glad that you do know ASL. Use it and enjoy it!
Chapter 41
Is it okay to use the term “deaf-mute” in reference to a Deaf person who can’t talk?
No, it’s no longer an acceptable term. “Mute” properly refers to someone who cannot talk, that is, produce intelligible speech, malfunctioning or missing vocal cords, or a severe language disorder such as aphasia (most commonly caused by a stroke). “Mutism” is a medical or psychological condition—the inability or refusal to produce sounds.
Virtually all Deaf persons are physically and psychologically normal in this area. They have vocal cords and voices, just as the vast majority of hearing people do.
This also applies to Deaf people who prefer to communicate exclusively in ASL. Their vocal apparatus is perfectly normal. But, being deaf, they cannot hear themselves talk, and thus, cannot easily modulate their voices. Consider: If you were born deaf or became deaf as an infant and have never heard yourself talk, it’s extremely difficult to talk clearly, with normal intonation. So, signing is the natural mode of communication for many Deaf people, as ASL is their true language; speaking can never be. A few Deaf people have good clear articulation—better than some hearing people—but most don’t. It’s a matter of personal preference, deciding what we feel most comfortable with.
There’s a movement in the Deaf community to reclaim the term deaf-mute as a positive term, based on its use by George Veditz, the eminent leader and advocate of ASL, and other great Deaf historical figures. Deaf-mute was originally a neutral term, and, with the ascent of oralism, Veditz and others used it as a badge of honor.
As Ella Mae Lentz notes in her blog thread, “Reclaiming Deaf-Mute”:
For an oppressed group, it can be empowering to reclaim for themselves negative terms about that group. Queer and Dyke are degrading terms that have been reclaimed in empowering ways.
I have recently seen some other Deaf folks starting to reclaim the term “deaf-mute,”. . . BUT only we can use that for ourselves. No no to the general public or media or professionals who continue not to understand us or look down on us . . . you do not yet know how to use “deaf-mute” properly.’
This is Matthew S. Moore’s response on the same thread:
A most provocative idea and responses! I thought about this years ago when I pondered the ASL sign (pointer at the ear, then to mouth): what it really means. I traveled to several states and gave many presentations, always describing myself by using the classic sign, and caught myself wondering … what was my interpreter signing when I made that sign? I asked several interpreters, “What word [voice translation] are you using when I make this sign?” They all said “Deaf.” But the gloss “deaf” doesn’t completely explain who I am. I’m a Deaf man who doesn’t use his voice. So, the correct gloss of that sign should be “deaf-mute.” I am actually a deaf-mute.
And here I’ve been, investing considerable effort into dissuading hearing people from using that term! Through “DEAF LIFE,” Deaf Life Press books, my presentations, I have consistently told readers and audiences NOT to use the term “deaf-mute,” that it’s outmoded and insulting, that it promotes the view that Deaf people are less capable than hearing people, and CAN’T talk (instead of choosing NOT to use our voices).
I am well aware that before Gallaudet University was called “Gallaudet College,” it was known as “National Deaf-Mute College.” Predating that, there was the Institut National des Jeune Sourds-Muets, which roughly translates “National Institute for Young Deaf-Mutes.”
George Veditz, for one, in his steadfast opposition to oralism, and the oralists, used the term “deaf-mute” as a badge of pride. But it was the influence of the oralists that turned “deaf-mute” into a negative label. They wanted to make the Deaf speak, forsaking their sign language, thereby un-deaf-muting them.
I agree that this “reclamation project” is something we should look into and discuss in depth.
It reminds me of the disability advocate who prefers the term “cripple” to the kinder, gentler “handicapped” and “disabled”. . . because she has written, “it makes people uncomfortable.” We have far too many euphemisms in currency: “physically challenged,” “mentally challenged,” and those charming euphemisms applied to Deaf people: “hearing-impaired” and “persons with the disability of deafness.” It’s time to put a term into a currency that reflects what WE call ourselves… something that represents our own perceptions and reality, instead of a distorted, deodorized, whitewashed, polite Hearing-society view.
Thank you for reopening the issue!
I know in my heart that ASL is a divine gift…a blessing from God. It’s our duty to cherish and preserve it.
Note that this reclamation only applies to in-group usage. Most Deaf people do NOT want to be referred to as deaf-mutes by the hearing majority. Used by Deaf people, it’s not a problematic term. Used by hearing people, it can be considered offensive, insulting, and inaccurate.