SEBRING — About 30 years ago, when Nancy Weems decided she would like to learn American Sign Language, it might as well have been like trying to learn an obscure language like Canadian Tuscarora or Nigerian Njerep — it just wasn’t taught much in Highlands County.
Weems, an American Sign Language professor at South Florida State College, said students had to go to Tampa or Orlando to learn ASL, but over the past 10 years — since the college began teaching courses — an influx of deaf or hearing-impaired people have been moving to the Heartland.
The result has been a surge of interest in students signing up for her classes and the formation of the Heartland American Sign Language (ASL) Club. Established in February, the group has been meeting the third Friday of the month, helping bridge the communication divide between the hearing and deaf from Lake Placid to Avon Park.
“I’m very happy about the club. There are so many people that want to learn and want to grow a union between the deaf and hearing world,” Weems said.
At a meeting in the Sun ’n Lake Island View restaurant Friday, four members of the ASL Club discussed upcoming events and shared what they hope the new club will accomplish. They said its main purpose would be to spread awareness and education of the deaf culture by bringing together the deaf community and students who are taking ASL courses and any others interested in learning American Sign Language or learning about the culture.
During the 45-minute meeting, the four founding members said that since the first meeting on Feb. 20 at Brewster’s Coffee in Sebring and another meeting on March 20 in the Lakeshore Mall, the has grown to about 20 members.
At the meetings, member Jamie Gallow serves as a interpreter for the hearing. An administrative assistant at the Sun ’n Lake Country Club, Gallow can hear but took three years of ASL courses at South Florida under Weems.
At the meeting with Gallow were Tammy Malone, Lupe Teverino, Laura Wilkes and Ron Shaffer, all of Sebring. As they sat around a couch, each said they were upbeat and excited to finally have an educational, social and outreach club for the deaf in Highlands County. They each stressed it was open to hearing-impaired and to the hearing.
“There are also a lot of deaf kids that live here and I want to spread knowledge to hearing people so if they have questions they can get answers or just get opinions for themselves and for their children,” Wilkes said, as Gallow verbalized Malone’s hand signs.
“We want people to see that deaf people can succeed; some people think we can’t, but we can. This (club) is all about fun and education.”
Gallow said that during the upcoming summer the ASL Club would be working on events where the deaf and the hearing can get together and socialize with their families. She said it was important for the hearing and deaf to get together as much as possible to learn from each other.
To do that, ASL Club members are planning to have specialized programs regarding hearing issues and build them around silent dinners, children’s days, ASL classes, counseling and technology, like alarms for the deaf and videophones. Another purpose for the club, Shaffer said, is to be a source for resources for the deaf.
“We also want to teach other deaf people where to get technology, programs for the deaf to help,” Shaffer signed. “This is another opportunity to build sign-language skills and to be involved with us (the deaf). We need many interpreters so we can work with them and they with us.”
Among the skills the members want to pass on are the versions of sign language. Shaffer said just like spoken languages, ASL is broken down into subsets such as signed word-for-word, phonetic finger spelling and using a “pidgin” version — a mix of ASL, signed English and ASL.
According to John Gountas, public information officer for the DeSoto County Health Department, there are 1,358 people ages 18 to 64 in Highlands County with hearing difficulty, which represents 2.8 percent of the population. He said there are no statistics for those under 18.
Club members said numbers like those are steadily increasing and make a club for the deaf and hearing more relevant, particularly for folks who may have lost their hearing later in life.
In addition to education and support, members said the club is about fun. Monthly trips to restaurants, movies and picnics would be scheduled along with other outings and field trips.
“We’ll plan deaf events for everyone. We want hearing people, too, to help interpret, especially those with deaf kids,” Wilkes said.
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