For those of you whose only link to the deaf world, is this blog, do you know how to greet a deaf person, introduce yourself and ask them how they are? I certainly did not this time last year. It doesn’t take long to learn and is actually quite fun!
There is a grocery shop in our town who has a deaf teller at one of the check out points. One morning whilst waiting in the queue to pay for my groceries, I noticed that this lady was working at teller station number 3. She would greet each customer and thank them in sign language. Most of the customers didn’t make any effort to engage with her, and I actually also realized that most of them hadn’t even realized that she was deaf. She looked sad and lonely. It was my turn to be served, and teller number 2 had become available. I held back and ushered the man behind me to go forward and take my turn by going to teller 2. I wanted teller 3! The automated voice then called for teller number 1. Again, I ushered forward the next customer behind me. By this stage, I was getting some rather puzzled looks. Finally teller number 3 became available. Rather nervous, as I literally had only a few weeks of sign language exposure behind me, I made my way to the third teller and with a smile, signed, “Hello! How are you?” This little lady’s face absolutely lit up! With a huge smile, she signed “hello!” and then, I’m afraid, those super quick little fingers lost me. Gulp, I was about to make a mammoth idiot of myself. I fumbled over a few signs, trying to explain that I had only just started learning sign language, so didn’t understand all that she had signed. Oh, she was so gracious, and slowly signed over, wrote the odd word down for me to read and thankfully, I could finger spell. Essentially, she wanted to know why I knew how to sign (bless her, I certainly didn’t know how to sign, but I sure was trying to communicate with her.) I explained to her that my 3 daughters were deaf, which I managed in sign, except at that stage I didn’t know the sign for “daughter”, so had to finger spell it. As I tried, and fumbled and was corrected, I relaxed, and started remembering more and began to enjoy myself. Groceries paid for, and we signed our thanks and goodbyes, and I glanced back to the queue of people that were waiting to check out. Man, had we gathered a bit of an audience! I felt myself become hot, as my cheeks resembled the tomatoes that I had just purchased, as there was certainly nothing elegant and fluent about the way I had just used my face and hands, one didn’t have to know anything about SASL to know that I was a beginner with a capital B!
Once unpacking my groceries in my car, I realized that I needed to return to the shop to hand in an application form for a “Myschool Card” where I had selected HI HOPES to be the beneficiary. (Basically a card that you swipe every time you shop at selected stores that contributes a small portion of your purchase amount to a charity of choice. It costs the customer nothing, and every swipe eventually adds up, I guess.) Anyway, as I entered the shop, I glanced over to where my new friend was serving. She wasn’t able to see me from where she was. She was aglow! Her eyes were alive as she enthusiastically signed “hello” and “thank you” to every customer that she served. Her smile was absolutely priceless, and well worth my awkward attempt at signing!
When I started learning to speak Zulu, as I worked in the rural hospital, I was more than happy to try the new words that I had learned with the patients that entered my room. Often, there would be no interpreter, and I’d just have to do my best. There were moments of complete confusion, and many a moment of silence, but in the end, I could hold a fair medical conversation in Zulu (with the odd homemade sign or gesture to help convey the message.) One thing that was evident, was that the patients really appreciated my effort to communicate with them in their language. Sign language is no different, it’s still very new to me, but at every attempt I learn something new, and become more comfortable at “messing up” for the sake of learning how to do it better next time. One thing is sure, that little deaf lady really appreciated my attempt to converse with her in her language, in spite of it being anything but perfect.
Below is a link to a video clip on “Talk Sign’s” Facebook page. At the end of the clip, they demonstrate the basic greetings in South African Sign Language. Take a look, and learn something new, then teach your family and work colleagues over lunch (it’s the only language where you can ‘talk’ with your mouth full!) And then, should you see a deaf teller, or meet someone deaf in any setting, I dare you to take a deep breath and swallow that pride, and go greet them, introduce yourself and show them that they are worth engaging with, and that their language is worth recognizing. Follow Mark Twain’s advice, “Why not go out on a limb? That’s where the fruit is.”