In high school, the introduction of ABC Family's (now Freeform) TV show "Switched at Birth" sparked my interest in sign language and the Deaf community. The show tells the story of two teenagers who discover that they had been switched at the hospital. With this life-changing realization, two families merge together to deal with complicated feelings.
A major part of this show manifests itself in the context of Deaf culture and sign language. One of the teenagers became Deaf at age 3 and subsequently grew up signing and attending a Deaf school. When the families reunite with their biological daughters, the rich, well-meaning Kennish family has a lot to learn about their Deaf daughter. They see her deafness as a disability, something they have the money to fix with a cochlear implant.
But within a few episodes and the rest of the series, we learn that there's something really special about deafness. To the Deaf community, deafness is not a disability -- it's a culture, a language, and a history with a set of shared values and role models.
I was hooked.
This was a community that I had never been exposed to before, and it was really, really cool! There was an entire group of people with a rich culture, a beautiful language, and their own thoughts and ideas.
I had no opportunity to communicate with them. I'd seen Deaf people before. There were some in my gym class. They signed to each other and their interpreter, but I didn't know how to join that conversation. I didn't know how to include them.
"Switched at Birth" exposed this hidden community to me, and I've been interested in sign language and Deaf culture ever since.
I ended up at a college with a full Deaf Studies program. When I came to school, I saw a course titled "American Sign Language I," and thought about taking it.
But I had a hard time justifying WHY.
I'd already fulfilled the core requirement that class fell under, and I didn't need it to fulfill anything else. There was no productive purpose in taking that extra class. But I took it anyway, and I am so glad.
I took ASL I just to see if I liked it -- and I LOVED it. This new language was amazing. It was really hard because I was completely immersed in the language from my first day of class. Having a Deaf professor removes the option of switching to English when you don't understand something. Unlike my high school French classes, I had no choice but to find a way to communicate with my professor without speaking English.
At first, I wrote down things that I didn't know the signs for. But eventually, I was able to describe concepts to get the sign I was looking for.
Last night, I went to my first ASL club meeting. (Finally, after four semesters in the Deaf Studies program, it fits into my schedule!). We played cards and chatted, entirely in sign language. It was some of the most fun I've had in a long time, and I learned so much, too!
Here's the thing, everyone. I didn't have to take the ASL class. I wanted to. I was curious about it, I went for it, and now it's one of the best things I've ever done. ASL is the first class that challenges me while actually making me feel excited and happy. It's HARD and it's something I've had to work for, but I haven't regretted a second of it.
Now, as an ASL IV-level student, I'm stressed about doing my best, just as I would be in another class. But no other class on my schedule feels entirely fun. We're learning a whole new language with its own culture, history, and community, and being immersed in a new environment that you're starting to understand better is so refreshing. American Sign Language is a full language, with grammar, untranslatable idioms, and unique ways to express thoughts visually that cannot be replicated in English.
I loved it so much that I declared a minor in Deaf Studies, and I'm considering upgrading it to a major. Either way, one thing is for sure: I've never enjoyed a class so much.
If you're curious about something but have no reason to actually do it, take my advice -- go for it! Otherwise, you may never know if there's a hidden passion somewhere in that vague interest.