Sign language classes bridge the Deaf and hearing worlds

Jeramy Coleman signs the word for rabbit during a conversational American Sign Language class on July 5 at the Dolphin Gardens Community Center in Groton. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Jeramy Coleman signs the word for rabbit during a conversational American Sign Language class on July 5 at the Dolphin Gardens Community Center in Groton. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

There are very few words spoken at the Wednesday night conversational American Sign Language classes offered by the Disabilities Network of Eastern Connecticut, but there is a lot of laughter.

The July 5 class marked the first session of the eight-week course, which runs continuously on Wednesday nights. Seated at the head of a table surrounded by new and returning students, instructor Dan Pinnell, who is deaf, went through flashcards of more than 130 signs, ranging from colors and foods to members of the family and time words.

Pinnell emphasizes a silent class, using familiar signs as well as gestures and facial expressions to explain new signs when students got stuck. Giggles ensued as everyone raised their wide-spread hands to their heads for the sign for “moose,” or as he demonstrated the subtle difference between the signs for “owl” and “binoculars.”

DNEC is one of five Independent Living Centers in the state, which help people with disabilities learn skills and access resources they need to live independently. Brynn Hickey, an advocate and ASL interpreter with DNEC, said the organization offers baby sign language groups as well as ASL and deaf awareness training for area providers such as Reliance Health. The conversational class was started recently by a family to build up their own skills.

Jeramy Coleman, who attended the class with his wife Liz, said their middle child was diagnosed as hard of hearing while they were stationed in Guam. There weren’t many resources for her to learn sign language there, so when they moved to Groton in September, Liz found DNEC and reached out to Pinnell for ASL courses so they could use it with their family.

He said DNEC, as well as the local deaf community, has been very supportive, and their children have quickly picked up the language; their infant daughter, who came with them to the class, rarely took her eyes off Pinnell as he demonstrated each sign.

The conversational classes are held at the community centers within the Navy housing neighborhoods off Route 12 in Groton, and many Navy families attend, though they are open to everyone. Erin Mokler, who recently started a new job with DNEC, said she joined during the previous session to improve her skills so she can communicate with her father, who is losing is hearing, as well as with her clients. She also brought Savannah Simon and Julianne Grove to the class, who said they had been interested in learning the language.

Sharon Heddle, executive director at DNEC, has also been attending the class. She said Pinnell starts with vocabulary and builds up to bigger sentences, going around the class to make sure everyone has it right before moving on. He uses card games like Go Fish to teach numbers, and when he asks students to write a paragraph for homework and sign it for the class, he works with each one to make sure their sentences make sense.

“It’s an exciting class because everybody learns so much, and we’re so happy to be there because he’s such a great teacher and he’s so fun,” she said. Many students are amazed by their own progress in the class, going from no sign language knowledge at all to being able to form sentences.

Overall, there has been a recent increase in interest in DNEC’s ASL and deaf advocacy programs. Hickey said she has been receiving emails every day about them, and she has been working with the Town of Groton Parks and Recreation Department to set up a baby sign class in the fall to support the deaf population in the area, in addition to bringing in revenue in the face of budget cuts.

“Sign language has become very popular as a world language option for people,” Hickey said. “I think more and more people are realizing that it’s not only good for communicating with deaf people but sign language has a place even in your day-to-day life.”

The conversational ASL class is $10 per session or $65 for eight weeks. For more information, call the DNEC office at (860) 823-1898.

a.hutchinson@theday.com

Instructor Daniel Pinnell, center, leads a sign language during a conversational American Sign Language class on July 5 at the Dolphin Gardens Community Center in Groton. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Instructor Daniel Pinnell, center, leads a sign language during a conversational American Sign Language class on July 5 at the Dolphin Gardens Community Center in Groton. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Instructor Daniel Pinnell demonstrates the sign for water during a conversational American Sign Language class  on July 5 at the Dolphin Gardens Community Center in Groton. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Instructor Daniel Pinnell demonstrates the sign for water during a conversational American Sign Language class on July 5 at the Dolphin Gardens Community Center in Groton. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

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