The visual language of ASL

By Father Dennis Meinen
View from the Scooter

When I was working with the Diocesan Coalition for Ministry to People Having Disabilities, we would often celebrate Mass at a parish and show them how disabled people can function during the liturgy.  To their surprise we would sometimes invite handicapped people from their congregation to take part. A person who knew sign language would sign my reflection and prayers during Mass. I would always enjoy including the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious during my comments and watch with glee how her hands would dance. I never forgot how some people would intently watch her as she communicated these words through the visual language of sign communicating.

I found an online course called, Learn How to Converse Comfortably and Correctly in True ASL (American Sign Language). The course introduction told of a 13-year-old girl who met a deaf person, a new student, for the first time in school. She was completely awestruck with the beautiful way the girl communicated.

But when the girl’s teacher finally introduced them, she had no idea what to do. All she could do was shake her hand and slowly say her name.

Eventually, they began writing back and forth to each other, but the two of them got along so well that she wanted to truly be able to communicate with her.

She decided to take an after-school ASL class, So, she searched online for ASL classes and found some good resources, but no complete options for learning the language. She ended up having to take classes at the local college because it was the only option she could find. Unfortunately, being only 13 years old, these classes were expensive with both her time and her family’s money, so this option was not ideal, but it did allow her to learn and fall in love with the language.

After completing her first ASL course, she was finally able to truly connect with her deaf friend and they became very close during their years in school.

Whenever I write to someone, I might include a phrase in the visual language of ASL. For example, to greet someone with a “hello,” make the sign by extending your fingers and cross your thumb in front of your palm. Now take the hand and start with your hand in front of your ear and extend it outward and away from your body. Finally, smile. It looks a little bit like when I was in the Coast Guard and I quickly saluted an officer.

Don’t you admire the innovativeness of a brand new deaf couple who were recently married? One night during their honeymoon the husband leaves the motel to go get some snacks. When he returns, he realizes he has forgotten which room is his. So, he begins honking the horn of his car until all the room lights turn on except one. That is his deaf wife.

Did Jesus ever use sign language? We know that the Divine Physician communicated in a special way to a man who could not hear.

People brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment and begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him off by himself away from the crowd. He put his finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue; then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him, “Ephphatha! (that is, “Be opened!”).

And the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly. They were exceedingly astonished, and they said, “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and mute speak.”

Father Dennis Meinen serves as chaplain at Holy Spirit Retirement Home, Sioux City, for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in the diocese, and Faithful Friar of the Garrigan 4th Degree Assembly of the Knights of Columbus, Sioux City.

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