Many people take their ability to communicate verbally for granted. Unfortunately, many Danville residents do not have that luxury. Because Danville is home to Kentucky School for the Deaf, the city has a large deaf community that relies on their hands for communication. Unfortunately, it is often hard for these two groups to effectively communicate because of the general public’s lack of basic sign language skills.
It is in an attempt to better communication between that deaf and hearing communities KSD will begin community sign language classes on Monday. According to Ina Faye Price, who coordinates the classes, most people enroll because they have a friend or acquaintance who is deaf.
“People take the classes because of the deaf school and the deaf community, so they can communicate with friends and classmates. … We’ve had everyone from nurses and other medical professionals to parents of deaf children. I’ve even had car salesmen,” Price said.
Designed to teach basic skills
The classes, which last nine weeks, are designed to teach basic skills to those interested in learning American Sign Language. There also are more advanced classes for people who feel they have mastered the basics. There is a fee of $40 for participants, though parents and family members of KSD students are free.
“Parents are top priority,” said Price.
Price also noted that members of the deaf community find it encouraging when others attempt to learn signing and improve their communication skills.
Rita Zirnheld, interpreter and sign language coordinator for KSD, agreed with the sentiments expressed by Price. “Lots of times it’s people wanting to be able to talk to their neighbors. People are very willing to try and learn so they can communicate,” said Zirnheld.
“We have a lot of people that keep coming back and going to higher levels,” said Zirnheld.
As the daughter of two deaf parents, she knows the need for the hearing to try to communicate, especially in Danville. “Because we have such a large deaf community and the school is here, education and awareness about deaf culture and community is important.”
The classes are held at KSD each year in the fall and the spring and have been a part of the school’s community education program for more than 30 years. Classes are usually well attended, though numbers fluctuate from year to year.
Learning ASL is not easy
“We have had as many as 97 and as few as 27. I’m always prepared with extra teachers because I never know,” said Price. Price also said there are usually about 50 students involved in the courses. For the spring session, the courses will be taught by Roger Coyer, Lisa Kingsley and Sarita Harkness, who all are deaf. Coyer is a retired KSD teacher and Kingsley is a current KSD teacher. Harkness is a graduate of KSD.
Price cautions that learning ASL, which is considered a foreign language, is not easy.
“English is an auditory language. ASL is a conceptual and visual language. It’s not something that can be learned right away,” said Price. However, if students do progress quickly, the difficulty level of the courses will be increased.
“As long as people are progressing, we’ll take them wherever they want to go,” said Price.
Price also said that the courses are an excellent starting point for people who want to eventually become professional interpreters.
“Students learn basic skills for communication. This is a good place to get started if they want to go on to Eastern Kentucky University or Gallaudet University.”
Programs to become professional interpreters
Both Gallaudet, located in Washington, D.C., and EKU have programs which train people to become professional interpreters. Students from the classes have in the past decided to continue their training and pursue careers in interpreting.
Megan Freedman, a former student at the KSD community sign language classes, plans to become an interpreter one day. Freedman began classes at KSD to communicate with a deaf friend and stayed involved with the deaf community. She currently is a student at University of Louisville and has attended Gallaudet University.
Price herself has been coordinating the classes since 1999 when the previous coordinator retired. She first became interested in signing when she was a high school student and witnessed classmates making fun of KSD students. Later, when Price befriended a deaf neighbor, she began to learn the skills necessary for effective communication. “I learned mainly from deaf friends, then started going to any class I could find,” Price said. “I wanted to learn to communicate, not hurt.”
By Rachel Parsons