My friend and I went to a birthday party Saturday night at Rock N Roll Hotel on H Street. The place was packed! Rock N Roll Hotel is a really big bar with three floors: the first is often a venue for concerts, the second is a bar and dance floor, the third is the rooftop bar. If you like 90s music, definitely go there and stay on the second floor. I was belting out songs that I sang along to during my middle school dances! That level also has several sections for private parties. One was reserved for a group of people who were deaf or hard of hearing.
In DC, it’s not a rare sight to see a group of people signing to each other while you grab a cup of coffee or push your cart down the cereal aisle of the grocery store. DC is home to Gallaudet University, the world’s only university where all the programs are designed to accommodate students who are deaf or hard of hearing.
The first time I learned about sign language was on an episode of Reading Rainbow where LeVar Burton. (You kids born since the 90s won’t have a clue what I’m talking about). LeVar introduced his friend who is deaf, and she taught him words and phrases throughout the show. Afterwards, I went to my local public library (like the kids at the end of each episode advise) and checked out a book on the ASL alphabet. Somehow, since learning the alphabet as a middle school student, I retained the knowledge to this today.
I love learning languages, and I was very excited to learn that Martin Luther King Public Library offers free ASL classes. I had gone to a few sessions about a year ago. After having had to use pen and paper to communicate with patients at the primary care clinic where I work, I was coincidentally thinking about how I should start going to them again a few hours before the party.
The classes are hosted on the second floor in the lobby. In these classes, there is no formal structure. Anyone is welcome. You attend and pick up whatever you can. To be honest, it’s daunting. However, there are always people dropping in for their first time, so you will not be alone. As with any class, the amount that you learn will depend on the effort you put into it.
Also on the second floor is the Adaptive Services Center where you can find large print books, books in Braille, and computers with programs designed for those with hearing or visual impairment. A staff member named Patrick (? It was a year ago) introduced me to ASL Pro, an online resource of videos for you to learn how to sign.
Along with some words and phrases like “Can you go to the store for me?” and “tomorrow,” I learned that sign language is not just about your hands. It relies on your facial expression, body position, and the strength, speed and size of your signs or gestures to fully communicate your thoughts. The language is very much an art form of dance or theatrics.
On a dance floor where the music is so loud I resorted to screaming in my friend’s ear for conversations that turned into impromptu games of telephone, my other dance buddies did not strain at all -signing, laughing and enjoying the night. Maybe next time, I will spare my vocal cords and follow their route.