LINCOLN, Maine — If you happen to meet any of the 39 members of Carrie Pierce’s American Sign Language classes at Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln, you’d be wise to avoid using the term “hearing-impaired.”
They really don’t like it.
“They’re not impaired — they’re deaf,” said senior Candice Osborne, 17, of Lincoln during an interview last week. “They’re deaf, they know that they’re deaf, and they like to be treated equally. They don’t want you to baby them.”
Deaf people — or those who live in “the community,” as the students say — feel that being called “hearing-impaired” smacks of condescension and the unequal treatment given those who are disabled, when all they really do that’s different from anybody else is speak with their hands, the students said. They also like the “d” in deaf to be capitalized.
“Don’t stare at them [when they sign],” Osborne said. “They regard that as an intrusion, like people being nosy.”
“And don’t yell at them,” said sophomore Jenna Brown, 15, of Lincoln. “They won’t be able to hear you any better. If you meet someone who is deaf and don’t know how to do sign language, tell them you don’t understand and that you will try your hardest to understand.”
This awareness of the sensitivities of deaf people, and the fact that it was among the first things mentioned by a half-dozen of Pierce’s students at the Mattanawcook Academy football game last Friday night, shows that the students are learning more than just ASL in Pierce’s classes.
They’re learning awareness, the culture of American deaf people, how to be more inclusive with the deaf, and a healthy feel for the sensibilities of those for whom signing is not just a second language — and that’s precisely the point, Pierce said.
Pierce, who is deaf, said with aid from Osborne’s translation that one of the goals of the class is to have her students, all of whom can hear, become more “understanding and accommodating to deaf people.”
This year, Pierce is teaching three ASL classes at MA. Students take the class for foreign language credit. It is part of the curriculum and meets every other day. Pierce also teaches adult education in Ellsworth and teaches two ASL classes at the University of Maine. She also runs a summer camp for deaf children and has a nature photography business.
One of the principles taught in Pierce’s classes is that English and ASL are separate languages. For example, when a student asked how to sign the phrase “you’re welcome,” Pierce explained that the sign is a thumbs up, or the sign for “all right” or “fine.” This prevents confusion with the sign for “welcome” when admitting someone to your home.
Friday’s football game was something of a milestone for Pierce and the two years of classes in ASL that she has taught at the Lincoln high school: It marked the first time that her students signed the national anthem before an athletic event.
The 10 students arrayed themselves on the field before the crowd and, after an announcement explaining their presence, “sang” the anthem in sign.
“I thought it was great,” said Julia Delano of Lincoln, who attended the game with her husband, Byron. “We actually have a cousin who is deaf, and I was thinking it would be great for her to have seen them doing that.”
“It was really different,” said Mike Farrell, 20, of Lincoln, a business management major at Husson University in Bangor. “We never had that in class when I was here.”
Pierce said she was proud of her students for their performance on the field and in the classroom, though sophomore Harlee Whitney, 15, of Lincoln said they were “crazy nervous” learning the translation for the anthem before the game.
“This is the first time it’s ever been done at a game here,” she said.
“We crammed it all in,” said 15-year-old sophomore Alycia Botting of Lincoln.
The students hope to sign the anthem at an MA basketball game next, they said.
They also want to continue learning and teaching sign language and promoting awareness of the needs of deaf people until the goal Pierce announced to her students in the first days of class — to have sign language so commonly known in the Lincoln Lakes region that she can shop here without any discomfort — is finally realized.