Sign language lessons help people speak in a new way

Published 12:03 am Friday, February 24, 2023

SALISBURY — Learning a new language can be an exciting activity that opens someone up to a whole new culture. But is it possible to learn a new language that doesn’t require any speaking?

The National Association of the Deaf calls American Sign Language a “visual language.” It relies on hand movements and gestures to communicate to those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Rufty-Holmes Senior Center has taken the initiative to start offering classes for people to learn ASL.

Caren Landis, a retired teacher from New York who taught deaf children and ASL for her entire career, leads the classes. She moved to North Carolina around three years ago and started taking other classes at Rufty-Holmes. Once the staff found out about her background, they offered her a chance to teach ASL at the center.

“Given the time constraints, I want these folks to leave here knowing a modicum of sign that they can get by in a rudimentary format. In eight weeks you cannot go out and have a conversation at a high level or a medium level,” Landis said. “I want it to be fun. If it’s not, fun nobody’s going to learn.”

Landis has always been passionate about teaching sign language and helping deaf people for as long as she can remember. It all started when she was 12 and saw the film “The Miracle Worker” with her mom.

“It was Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. It was a really long time ago. I remember I said, ‘I want to do that when I grow up.’ And my mom said, ‘What? You want to be deaf?’ I said, ‘No, I want to be the miracle worker!’ ”

The weekly class lasts an hour and is held on Thursdays. This was the third class of an eight-week course, but Landis has been asked by the center to teach a few more.

“People think that American Sign Language is slang, pidgin English. It’s not. It’s a whole, full grammatical structure, lexicon. It’s just a whole other language utilizing some English terminology. We have our own grammatical structure. That’s the difference,” Landis said.

Joyce Chappell recently retired and was looking for a reason to get outside of the house and meet new people. She is an advocate for ASL and for the class,  where she can hopefully learn basic conversational skills.

“It’s beautiful, it’s a beautiful language. It’s not as prevalent as other languages and I just thought it be something fun to do,” Chappell said.

Landis said, “I think it just enables deaf kids more access to the world.”

It looks like her childhood dreams have come true.

“I became the miracle worker,” she said.