Visual Language

Ten years ago, I decided to go back to college. As anyone with a disability may do, I contacted Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) for assistance. I had to jump through many hoops as VR evaluated my fitness for collegiate life with IQ, aptitude, and psychological tests. A recently divorced mom with two young children, I knew I needed to earn a degree or two to provide for them and set a positive example.

My first day back on a college campus was thrilling! I was determined to do well in school this time around, but the reality of my deafness hit me in a new way as I sat in the classroom and understood half the lecture and none of the questions asked by my classmates. Flunking was not an option – not with two young children and no child support. I didn’t know sign language, and was unaware of other accommodations in place for hard of hearing students.

I knew about the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities and practically ran there after class. Two days later, I was pleasantly surprised to find an “oral interpreter” waiting for me in Biology class. She soundlessly mouthed my professors’ lectures, and wrote down what I couldn’t lipread. As many of you know, only 1/3 of speech is visible on the lips, and of the visible sounds, several look exactly alike. Have someone “mouth” the following words and see if you can tell the difference:

Elephant juice
Olive juice
I love you

Also – Island View (Thanks, Quixotic Deaf)

To satisfy the foreign language requirement, I took two semesters of American Sign Language (ASL) classes. Eventually, I gained enough vocabulary to “upgrade” from oral to sign language interpreters. Because English is my first language, my interpreters communicated with me using Signed Exact English (SEE), interpreting each spoken word, unlike ASL, which is grammatically and structurally different from English.

My friends, colleagues, and relatives are all hearing, and I rarely have the opportunity to sign. Deaf people are extremely welcome in my Library, and I practice my rusty signs with any willing person. As a Librarian, I have found that my familiarity with sign language is very helpful in other ways, too, as this story illustrates:

A group of homeless men are in the children’s section of the Library. The computers for children have signage clearly indicating they are for children, are on low tables, and have small chairs. But this group of homeless men seem to be oblivious to this fact, and proceed to sit down on these tiny seats. I stifle a giggle at the sight of these grown men – their knees snug in their armpits, hunched over a computer – and walk over to them.

Me: These computers are for children. I’m sorry, but you cannot use them. We have computers for adults over there. (pointing)

Homeless men: Okay. (all proceed to leave, except for one)

I walk back to the Information Desk and wait another minute, expecting the straggler to leave in a few seconds. It soon becomes apparent that he’s not leaving soon, and I return to the computer section.

Me: (Using sign language, I repeat my previous statements)

Homeless man: Huh? What are you saying?

Me: Oh, I’m sorry, when you didn’t leave with your friends, I thought you were Deaf!

Homeless man: (Chagrined look) I’m leaving now.

Yep – I know sign language, and I’m not afraid to use it!


  1. What a wealth of info (and humor) you share. Did not know of either SEE or oral interpreters. It has been decades since college for me. Classes at the community college are attractive though. Now I know what to ask and hope for.

  2. quixoticdeaf Said:

    Here’s another one for you to add to your list. I know some more because it seems like people are always adding to that list, but I can’t remember them right now.

    Island view

  3. Hoh Said:

    That’s another good one – thanks!


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