Bridges for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

I’m back! The last six months have been insanely busy for me between getting married, finishing Sophomore Year, helping Mitch move, and apartment flood, etc. Despite the craziness, it was a good semester and I learned a lot. So now I’m back and I have a ton of planned blogposts sharing some of the things that I’ve learned and done!

One of my classes this year was an entry level Social Work course, which was required for my minor. The class itself only met once a week for an hour and there was relatively little coursework. The bulk of the class was completing 60 hours of volunteer work in a social work type agency. Our professor had a list of various agencies around Nashville, and I ended up choosing Bridges for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. I knew a little sign language from my choir days and I had learned some basic food vocabulary for when I worked at Chick fil A, but I had always wanted to learn more.

Bridges hosts a variety of different programs servicing the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HOH) in the greater Middle Tennessee area. They offer interpretors, ASL classes, support groups for parents with Deaf or HOH children, after-school programs, community events, and general assistance for daily living. One woman came in having trouble connecting to her email. Since she was unable to call an IT helpline, one of the staff worked with an interpreter to figure out the problem.

I started in late January and continued until mid-April, and I loved every minute of it! The employees, most of whom are hearing, loved having me there and were very encouraging as I struggled my way through signing. Most of my time there I manned the front desk, answering phone calls and welcoming people as they came in. Because this was often slow work, my supervisor let me watch sign language tutorials or do any other homework I needed to do. I also started watching Switched at Birth on Netflix, which includes a multitude of Deaf characters played by Deaf actors! I was able to relate to the hearing characters as they struggled to learn ASL, as well as pick up some more signs. Unfortunately, they took it off of Netflix in May and I only finished the first season. I haven’t been able to find it anywhere else, so if you know where please let me know!

 When you get so used to signing that you start doing it everywhere.
When you get so used to signing that you start doing it everywhere.

I also spent about an hour every week helping with their after school program. I usually worked with children who were oral with cochlear implants. American Sign Language is it’s own unique language and does not translate directly into English. Therefore, it can be challenging for Deaf children to learn English at the same rate as their hearing peers. Oftentimes they will know the sign for a certain word but are unable to recognize it in written English. I helped teach them English, and they taught me a few new signs. Occassionally, I’d be paired with someone without an implant who couldn’t speak. That became a challenge, and I usually had someone with me to help. By the end, I had gotten the hang of it and felt comfortable working with them as well.

Over the course of several weeks I made a lot of new friends. It was challenging at first due to my limited ASL skills, but most people were very accommodating and helped me out. What mattered was that I was trying. Donald and Joyce were some of those nice people. They were setting up for a big health event for the next day, and we started chatting when they sat down to rest. I think we had a full on conversation for about 30-40 minutes, without a translator. They taught me how to sign numbers and I asked them how they met. I had a harder time understanding Don’s signs, as it was harder for him to slow down. Joyce would notice my look of bewilderment and basically tell him to shut up while she slowly spelled out the words I had missed. We had a lot of fun together.

 I don’t remember what he said this time, but Don is always cracking jokes and making me laugh!
I don’t remember what he said this time, but Don is always cracking jokes and making me laugh!

Rita is the one who gave me my sign name. Fun fact, you can’t make up your own sign name unless you are Deaf or HOH. If you’re a hearing person, it has to be given to you by a Deaf person. When I first met Rita, she asked for my sign name and I told her I didn’t have one yet. She immediately started thinking and then gave me one! My sign name is the letter “e” held perpendicular to the chin and shook back and forth. I loved it! I was so excited and immediately told everyone in the building. It put me in a great mood for the rest of the day.

 Rita is on the far left.
Rita is on the far left.

My last official day was Game Day. Once a month, Bridges holds an event where Deaf people of all ages can come and socialize. The adults and seniors come around lunch and the kids and families come later in the afternoon. I had an afternoon class so I only joined the adults, but it was a blast! A lot of the friends I had made were there, and I got to make some new ones too. It was a great ending to a wonderful semester, although I plan to continue going to the Game Days as often as I can. The last two coincided with my wedding and work, but I’m aiming for the one in July. I miss being there and communicating via ASL. It’s such a beautiful and expressive language, and I don’t want to lose that.

One time, I met a woman who was Deaf and had additional special needs. I couldn’t understand what she was signing, and when I grabbed my supervisor—who’s not an interpreter but can still get by—she explained that most of them couldn’t understand what she was saying due to her disability. Seeing her reminded me of my friend Svita in Ukraine, the one who doesn’t talk and has a hard time listening. At this point I am convinced that she is at least Hard of Hearing and could benefit greatly from sign langauge. Sure, no one understood everything the woman said, but she had a voice. She didn’t just have to sit in silence and not be able to communicate anything at all. Russian Sign Language exists but it is drastically different from ASL. For now, I’m focusing on learning Russian and ASL separately. That way I can keep up with ASL and use it here whenever I visit Bridges or run into someone who is Deaf. I can keep up with Russian so I can continue to communicate with my Ukrainian friends.

But when I get there, I want to learn Russian Sign Language so that I can work with Deaf children in the orphanage. There are few services over in Eastern Europe, although I have seen an interpreter at a church one time. But in the orphanages, it is practically non-existent. How will these children ever hear or understand the Gospel if they don’t even have a language? Did you know that Deaf people are one of the largest unreached people groups? Did you know that there could be up to 300 forms of sign language globally? There is a huge need in this community, and it’s one that I was completely unaware of until I came here.

I would highly encourage you to learn even some basic signs. Bill Vicars runs a great YouTube channel with lessons that I’ve found extremely useful. Jessica Kellgren-Fozard has a lot of informative videos about Deaf culture (from a British perspective) that also helped me in my journey. It may seem like a small step toward making the world more accessible for Deaf people, but it really does make a difference in the lives of those you meet. We’re not all going to go out and teach sign language in remote villages. We’re not all going to go out and plant Deaf churches. But we can learn to spread a bit of kindness in another language.

Proverbs 31:8: Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves (NIV).

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