Easy Signing's Student Travels to Africa
Before embarking on his journey to the country, Ghana in Africa, James Gilbert, a Peace Corps (PC) member took Easy Signing’s Beginner’s ASL classes. He was referred to Easy Signing by International Institute of Minnesota. James was seeking an opportunity beyond the Peace Corps language training to learn American Sign Language.
His new job was to teach the art of batiking to Deaf students at a deaf boarding school in Koforidua, Ghana for the sake of some talented students possibly turning it into a livelihood. Although James only had 8 lessons through Easy Signing, he noticed some differences in sign vocabulary in GSL.
James informed Debbie of the invaluable grammar training he had received from her class. For an example, the school day there always starts with an assembly signing the Lord’s Prayer. He said, “At first I learned it word-for-word like the spoken version. Well, your arms get tired pretty quickly signing it that way!
So, after paying closer attention I saw that the students were signing it like the way you taught us to construct sentences. Plus, I discovered that students could understand me much better when I phrased my sentences that way. Sounds like a small point but actually it made a huge difference for me, and it's a lesson I learned from your class and not in PC language training.” Debbie continues to teach ...Read More
What’s the Significance in Modeling Non Manual Markers?
Tuesday night, right from the onset Easy Signing‘s students of all ages jumped into their ASL learning through building a Communication Tower without verbalizing to each other how tall to build their group’s tower! Balls of clay, bent straws held together with toothpicks forming the towers while students smiled, watched each other and contributed their thoughts without saying a mumbling word. The students were having a nonverbal experience to gain a small sense of how it might feel to communicate your wants and needs without voicing it. When Deaf people converse in ASL, they do not use their voices. Rather their expression is through handshapes and Non Manual Markers ( NMM).
Next, students paired off and modeled each other’s non-manual markers. We saw all kinds of facial expressions, body language and gestures! Throughout the night for two hours, students modeled their teachers while learning their first set of ASL handshapes and NMM to use in conversations with a Deaf person or even a person with speech limitations. There were looks of curiosity as if to say, “Hmm-mm, I wonder what is the reason for doing this activity?” As the activity continued on, all of the sudden there was laughter, wild, slow, fast and exotic and oops, lazy forms of modeling. Deaf assistant teacher Benita caught those lazy ones. A Deaf person visual acuity is key in exchanging conversation. Because of this, their visual lens and visual perception tends to take keener awareness in conversation beyond that of a hearing person with auditory factors.
As the class continued through the night learning basic ASL handshapes and NMM, they soon realized they actually were conversing with a Deaf person about their choice of drink. Not only did the students decided if they wanted coffee, tea or water. They extended their conversation to sign what and how many ingredients they wanted in their drinks. Moreover, they decided if it would be a hot or cold drink and how they would drink it. We all broke out into laughter when one student declined coffee but asked for a hot chocolate drink! Whoa! The students were advancing their conversations with their learning of 36 commonly used handshapes and many non-manual markers to create meaning to the thoughts they were conveying to each other, especially to their Deaf teach Benita. By the end of their first class, Easy Signing’s students realized the difference NMM meant in American Sign Language conversations.
The canvas holds splashes of dark neutrals, browns, purples and blacks. Sarah dips her brush in neon orange and carefully dabs a small blotch into the bottom left corner. She smiles and flicks her paint-stained hands outward to sign, “finished.” Her long-time signing teacher, Debbie Lawrence, asks her to describe her artwork and Sarah places her hands near her shoulders, bends her fingers twice, signing, “animal”. The tangerine splotch is apparently a carrot. Her face breaks a broad grin, complete with dimples and eye twinkles. Pride. Debbie takes photos and messages them to Sarah’s mom, who sighs with relief knowing her daughter has finally found her voice in the world.
This was Sarah’s experience day, last spring, at her new adult day program at Interact Center for Performing and Visual Arts in St. Paul, a creative program with a nurturing atmosphere that refers to and treats their special adults as working “artists”. It’s the perfect place for Sarah, a moderately deaf, nonverbal, 21 year old young lady with Down syndrome who has spent most of her educational life struggling to fit in to a “typical” and hearing world that didn’t understand the way she communicated best, visually.
Her teacher, Debbie, has partnered Sarah in her journey to adulthood for over eight years and has seen her grow, through the use of sign language, in her ability to communicate with others. Now with her new program, one that supports her language and embraces her individuality, Sarah has discovered another mode of self-expression, that of art. Sarah’s blossoming creativity has given way to greater confidence, independence and a productive place in society. Once resisting the early morning bus to school, Sarah now wakes up each day excited to go to “work” and paint.
Throughout her life, Sarah has always been a quiet observer with an affinity for the intuitive, the experiential, and for the visual. She even chose her language of signing, definitively and early on -- refusing speech therapy and turning off her hearing aids -- well before the rest of the world seemed to get on board with her. But Sarah knew who she was, even when her parents were worried she wouldn’t find her place after high school, lost in a world that was too loud and moved too quickly. So from the moment she first stepped foot into the visual art room at Interact Center, and beheld all the color and creativity on the tables and easels in front of her, she started signing, “happy”. Now, Sarah claims her place in the world each time she points to herself and signs “art” with one pinky finger drawing a line onto her palm, and then slices down the air in front of her with both hands to signify the mark of personal identity. She signs it and she knows it. She is an artist.
Another photo pops up on Sarah’s mom’s phone. These texts are a daily highlight. This time her daughter is standing in what the program coordinator calls “Easel-Town”, holding, across her chest, a large stretch of white cotton knit with brilliant curly strokes and stamps of rainbow-colored swirls. Sarah’s head is cocked to one side, mouth grinning ear-to-ear. Her voice, clearly painted on the fabric, is one full of color and creativity, independence and identity, purpose and pride.
Update: After nearly a year now at Interact, Sarah has already completed dozens of different paintings using multiple mediums of acrylics, pastels, canvas and fabric. She is also learning Japanese Saori loom weaving. Sarah has had her artwork on display at the St. Paul Art Crawl, and most recently her piece "The Train" was showcased at the University of Minnesota's Institute for Community Integration's art showing called "Changing Landscapes". At home, she is starting her own business (with her mom) of homemade hair accessories, specializing in hand-painted fabric headbands.
On October 22, 2004, Gallaudet University dedicated an auditorium in Andrew Foster’s name, calling him the, “Father of Deaf Education in Africa.” This month we celebrate Dr. Andrew Foster's legacy!
Dr. Andrew Foster was the first African American to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree from Gallaudet University. The late Dr. Foster was also regarded as the “Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet” of Africa because he went on to establish 32 schools for Deaf people in 13 African nations leading to changing the lives of hundreds of Deaf students.
Dr. Foster was a Deaf missionary who taught sign language to many Deaf Africans. It was his utmost desire to see the fulfillment of his favorite bible verse, Isaiah 29:18, which says “In that day the deaf will hear the words of the book.” Once he got married, he and his wife would spend six months out of the year establishing more schools throughout Africa. They would return to the United States to raise funds to support more schools and raise their family.
Before the tragic airplane crash that took Dr. Foster’s life, one of his last students to learn Sign Language from him was Joseph Mwaba. Dr. Foster was in Zambia exploring to establish a church for Deaf people. Joseph Mwaba is building a legacy as a “Father” to many Deaf people in the Copperbelt region of Zambia.
Joseph Mwaba met Dr. Foster in 1982 at the age of 21 years while he was the only Deaf a student at Munali Boys Secondary School. He received information that an American Deaf missionary was looking for Deaf people to meet him at the North Mead Assembly of GOD Church in Lusaka. Joseph said, " I looked for transport money but did not find. So, I had to walk from Munali Boys Secondary School to the church. “It took me 3 hours to walk and run there.” When Joseph arrived he was mesmerized by Dr. Foster’s ability to communicate with both Deaf and hearing people. Joseph reported, “At the church he preached to us a sermon in sign language. At that time sign language was not used in Zambia.” Dr Foster's main mission was to establish a Deaf Church and sponsor Deaf people to study a trade and the Bible in sign language so that he could prepare them to spread the Word of God and become Missionaries.
Before Dr. Foster left Zambia, he gave Joseph three important things, his first bible, an A to Z sign language chart and Joseph’s name sign - a “J” signed on each cheek representing his first named and his distinctive characteristic, dimples. Today, Joseph still possess each of the gifts from Dr. Foster. He carries on Dr. Foster’s mission by pioneering Deaf sport events as a vehicle to provide opportunities for education and Christian studies. Joseph is the founder of Zambia Deaf Vision (ZDV), an NGO that strives to provide inclusiveness and advancement for Deaf people.
Debbie had the privilege to work with Joseph in 1998 when she led a small team to Zambia to fulfill Joseph’s request to bring Deaf Mission’s first Deaf New Testament on VHS. Debbie also educated Deaf Zambians the facts of HIV AIDS prevention, entitled, “HIV/AIDS, Dispelling the Myth”.
Eighteen years later, they have reconnected and commenced doing cross-cultural work together through Easy Signing with a presentation on “Corn to Nshima,” Zambia's staple food. Last year, through ZDV Debbie taught her first international ASL class to Deaf Zambians along with her ASL Beginners’ class at Life Way Christian Store, Maple Grove, MN.
This year Joseph Mwaba will be in the United States to do his first-time cross cultural experience with American Deaf communities. Will you join us by welcoming Joseph to present Zambian Deaf Culture at your schools, organizations and churches? He will be pleased to receive your invitations. Together, let’s continue celebrating the legacy of Dr. Andrew Foster. Contact us to invite Mr. Mwaba to your next event.