Jana Minich ‘20
Imagine your high school days, if you can remember back that far. But imagine that, instead of hearing the bell between classes, the slam of the lockers, and the ring of your best friend’s laugh, you hear nothing. Fast forward and picture how different law school classes, bar review, or snagging snacks from the snack office would be if you couldn’t chat with friends in the halls or hear the professor in the classroom.
Hearing people inevitably take sound for granted, and when we contemplate life without it, we think of all the music, sounds, or maybe podcasts we would miss. But for Deaf people, it is the communication barrier between them and the hearing world that is significant. Without sign language training and interpreters, this barrier can separate Deaf children from family conversations and Deaf students from educational opportunities and relationships with classmates.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Awareness of Deaf culture, common courtesy toward the Deaf, and even a basic understanding of sign language can powerfully bridge divides and bring the Deaf more fully into the community both here at the law school and in the workplace. That’s why a small team of UVA Law students is working to grow a sign language organization—Amici Signatae Linguae (“ASL”)—here at the law school. Amici Signatae Linguae means “Friends of Sign Language,” which embodies our vision of fostering sign language use at the law school for the benefit of Deaf students and visitors, children of Deaf adults, and hearing sign language learners.
The inspiration to start ASL began during my 1L year, in a small church fellowship hall, trying desperately to remember enough from high school sign language to be able to communicate with Bobby and Mary. Deeply kind older people that they are, they patiently taught me to sign and understand signs better. I found that sign language tapped a creative linguistic part of my brain unexercised by law school classes or even my failed attempt at Spanish fluency. I was hooked.
When I found out that a Deaf student had started at the law school last year, I knew it was time to spread sign language fever at the law school. I put out a small plug on the SBA Events email to gauge interest, and the organization took off from there. We started with a sign language training kickoff in the spring semester, and a band of faithful students stuck with the weekly meetings through the end of the school year.
Because sign language doesn’t require complicated verb conjugations like spoken language (go, am going, went, have gone), it’s less confusing to pick up. Intuitive signs also help the learning process go more smoothly—can you guess what the sign for “time” is? And of course, you can always fall back on fingerspelling in sign language, so nothing stops you from diving into simple conversations using the signs you know even if you’re just beginning. That’s not say that sign language is simple or easy. It’s a complex and beautifully expressive language with nuances just like spoken language. But its unique attributes make it easier to begin using sign language than a new spoken language.
This year, ASL started strong with “An Introduction to the Deaf World,” an event featuring sign language faculty from Main Grounds who shared their personal stories of hearing loss or living with Deaf family members. They also shared pointers on working with interpreters to maintain maximal clarity with legal clients. Our guests finished by teaching a few basic signs. (We will preserve the anonymity for the members of the crowd who confused certain similar signs, saying “forbidden” instead of “law,” “nice to date you” instead of “nice to meet you,” and “naked” instead of “what’s up.”) We look forward to hosting another event on Deaf culture and concerns next semester!
In the meantime, join us for a training session on every Monday at 5:45 p.m. in WB 105. There’s always food to eat, signs to learn, and laughs to be had at someone’s signing mistake (often mine). We also have informal signing lunches at noon every Thursday in ScoCo. Bring your own lunch, but prepare to enjoy fantastic baked goods brought by our own Lena Welch.
A big thanks to the board members who make ASL possible: Michael Gibbons as VP, Bill Re as Treasurer, Lena Welch as Signing Lunches Chair, Joe LoPresti as Membership Chair, and Kolleen Gladden as Overlord of Social Media and Advertising.