Listening through sight with American Sign Language

Fingerspelling is a common communication device used in American Sign Language. Pictured here are the letters A-S-L. (Maddi Driggs)

American Sign Language isn’t always used within deaf communities, but many deaf individuals find beauty and value in the simplified visual language.

Tyler Foulger, a graduate of BYU from Arizona became deaf at the age of four when he contracted spinal meningitis. He didn’t develop sign language skills until high school. Foulger said he enjoys the simplicity of the three-dimensional language.

“Instead of saying ‘the car went around the corner, heading left’ you can show all of that with two or three signs,” Foulger said.

Cody Simonsen a student at UVU majoring in deaf studies said that he feels like a familiar superhero when signing.

“Do you remember the time when Iron Man is designing the suits in 3D? I feel like that when I’m signing. There is a sense of wonder and awe in the way I’m able to use this visual medium to communicate,” Simonsen said.

Simonsen and his two siblings are hearing children of deaf adults (CODAs) in the deaf community. He said growing up with deaf parents didn’t hinder his verbal communication more than the occasional mispronounced word.

“My parents were very diligent in exposing us to sign language and English stimulation,” Simonsen said.

Simonsen’s parents would leave the TV on with the sound up, or plan a lot of play dates with their neighborhood friends or CODA cousins in order to assist in the development of their verbal language skills. 

He said the dominant language used at his home is American Sign Language but his parents communicate orally as well.

“We had a friend over for dinner and when he asked what we were having, Mom signed lasagna, and we told our friend that we were eating ‘enchile.’ When our friend saw the dish he said, ‘Oh! You mean lasagna!'” Simonsen said.

Small wording mistakes are not as common now, but there is a new type of language barrier in his life according to Simonsen. He identifies more with the deaf community even though he isn’t deaf. He said he is much more comfortable expressing himself using sign language than speaking verbally.

“I have a deeper connect with my ASL friends than my hearing friends. ASL is an expressive language. I feel more rigid and uptight when I’m speaking English. I’m myself in sign language,” Simonsen said.

Not all families with deaf individuals use American Sign Language as their dominant language. BYU junior and psychology major Benjamin Featherstone said his family grew up speaking English and some sign language.

Featherstone was born deaf and has two brothers who were also born deaf. When Featherstone’s first deaf brother was born his parents taught him how to speak. When Featherstone’s second deaf brother was born, he struggled learning how to talk so Featherstone’s family learned how to sign. By the time Featherstone was born, his family was good at both speaking and signing.

“My parents are good at English sign language not American Sign Language. For example, my parents will sign ‘I am going to the store’ when the correct way in ASL is ‘store, I go’,” Featherstone said.

Featherstone said his dad has made sure to encourage family games and opportunities to play together, providing environments where everyone can communicate effectively through signing and no one feels left out.

“Growing up in a hearing community can make it easy for a deaf person to feel that they are imperfect. That they don’t fit in, and can’t participate. There have been many times when I wish I wasn’t deaf, it would make my life so much easier,” Featherstone said.

Featherstone said he decided to get a cochlear implant when he was 13, a surgery often frowned upon in the deaf community. Featherstone compared the deaf community’s anti-cochlear stance to the mutants in the X-Men movies.

“The mutants like being mutant. They think they are perfect, just the way they are, and it’s the same for the deaf community,” Featherstone said.

The day before Thanksgiving, he went in for surgery. He said the year following the surgery was “the worst year” of his life.

“It’s like being in a dark room all your life and suddenly the light turns on and it is painful for your eyes,” Featherstone said. “I had to learn how to listen and talk.”

Even though Featherstone has a “cure” for being deaf, he said being deaf is one of the greatest blessings in his life.

“I love the implant. Whenever I wear it I have a blast, but I can take it off and still have a blast,” Featherstone said. “I love the blessing of being deaf. I don’t have to hear people swear or snore and I can sleep very well. Being deaf gives me the blessing of being able to empathize and understand people. Being deaf is the best thing that has ever happened to me.”

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