Learn Auslan – Level 1- Name signs

Name signs work very differently from given names in English. While parents think long and hard about their choice of English name for their child, name signs are not chosen the same way. It is actually considered inappropriate to sit down and make up a name sign for a person. Instead, name signs need to happen or evolve naturally.

Let me tell you the story of my name sign. My English name is Asphyxia. It’s actually a medical word which means ‘suffocation’. I know – that’s not a very positive meaning for a name. How I got the name Asphyxia is another story, and it actually has a positive meaning for me. Anyway, when I was eighteen and learning Auslan for the first time, my teacher, Robert Adam, used to call the roll. He’d go around the class, fingerspelling each person’s name. However, when he got to me, he could never fingerspell my name – too long, too many confusing letters. So instead, for me, he’d do the sign ‘choke’. That stuck, and now it’s my name sign.

A name sign can only be given by a Deaf person. It is not appropriate for hearing people to make up name signs. If you don’t have a name sign, please fingerspell your name in full. Perhaps down the track, a Deaf person will give you a name sign. But it is not appropriate to ask or to try to make it happen.

Name signs are often based on a characteristic of a person. I know of a woman whose sign is based on the word ‘girl’ and ’11’ – because she was the girl in room 11 at her Deaf boarding school. Name signs can refer to curly hair, nose rings, glasses or even birthmarks. Often, there’s an element of teasing in a name sign: I know two people whose name signs are based on the word ‘careless’. Using a person’s initials is also a very common name sign.

Learn Auslan – Level 1 – Fingerspelling Patterns

For this lesson, read the text before you watch the video!

People learning to fingerspell usually read one letter at a time, and at the end of each word they try to mentally put the letters together to understand the word. However, when reading they will be able to glance at a word on the page and know it from the shape – there is no need to read it letter by letter.

Reading fingerspelling can be the same. Rather than concentrating on each individual letter, concentrate on the handshape the word makes. Notice the first letter, the last letter, one or two key letters in the middle of the word, the approximate length of the word, then use this information to work out what the word is. Context is very important, so factor in what you are talking about. A long word that is fingerspelled will often be spelled slowly the first time in conversation, and then for the remainder of the conversation, signed very fast. Think about what you are talking about and what the word could possibly be.

Try fingerspelling your name, looking for patterns and handshapes. Try finding patterns for these words:

• Cream
• Program
• Out
• How
• Rice
• Bus

Now watch the video – I sign these words, showing you the rhythm I use that adds flow to the word. Many words that are routinely fingerspelled have a particular flow and shape that makes them easy to identify, even if you can’t distinguish each letter. You learn those flow-shapes, just as you learn specific signs.

How do you communicate with a deaf person?

How do you communicate with a deaf person_-1

If I tell you I’m deaf, that doesn’t actually tell you anything about me. For instance, it doesn’t tell you how I communicate. Maybe I use Auslan (Australian sign language). Maybe I can’t sign at all. Maybe I lipread well. Maybe lipreading stresses the hell out of me and I’d rather not. Maybe I can talk on the phone and enjoy music. Maybe I can’t or don’t.

So how do you know the best way to communicate with a deaf person?  Follow their cues.

Notice how they communicate with you, and respond in kind. If I speak to you, speak back.
– Face me.
– Open your mouth when you speak, without over-enunciating or going too slowly.
– Don’t shout. If I don’t understand, try rephrasing.
– Add visual clues such as indicating the thing/person you are talking about.
– Watch my facial expression to see if I understand, and if I don’t, find another way to communicate until it works.

If I indicate my deafness by pointing to my ears, and miming that I’d like to write with pen and paper, don’t respond by speaking and expecting me to lipread you. Find a pen and paper and write instead, or use your phone.

While you’re at it, act normal. Don’t tell me about every deaf encounter you’ve ever had, or make me sit through a demonstration of the fingerspelling you learnt at school, or assume that I’m not intelligent. Don’t share your heartbreak that I will never hear the birds twittering nor the patter-patter of rain. And definitely don’t suggest that I undergo surgical intervention.

When referring to someone’s deafness, use the same terms as they use. If they say ‘hard of hearing’, don’t call them ‘deaf’. If you’re not sure, ask. In fact, just about everything can be clarified with a simple question. Before you ask, though, think in terms of basic courtesy that you would extend to anyone. For instance, don’t ask overly probing or personal questions if you are strangers.

If you’d like to do your bit to raise awareness about deafness, feel free to share this post. Thanks!

How gender stereotypes are created

Do you ever wonder why our society is so obsessed with gender? What makes it SO important that most of us simply cannot relate to a person unless we know their gender? Are boys and girls innately different or is it society that shapes us? I have wondered this for a long time, and finally I found a book that offered real, evidence-based answers:

Here’s what I learnt from the book

We are obsessed with gender.

The first thing a baby is likely to hear when out of the womb is a pronouncement of his/her gender. Every day, for the first weeks and months of a child’s life, they hear their parents announce over and over which gender they are. We use gender to label, sort, segregate and even colour-code people. It becomes the most important category to which a child belongs. it is like saying to our children, “Your gender is really, really important. It determines what activities you’ll like and how you will behave. Please pay attention to how boys and girls behave and act and shape your preferences accordingly.”

We humans love to categorise things.

Creating stereotypes is an innate trait – it’s a way for us to quickly and easily understand our world, and we do this from a young age. The reason that so many stereotypes centre around gender is because that’s the focus our society gives it. If we give children a different focus, they will just as quickly create stereotypes around that.

A study on stereotypes.

Rebecca Bigler, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Texas, shows that simply labelling a group leads children to develop stereotypes about that group. For example, students in a primary school class were each given a red or blue T-shirt and told to wear it every day for six weeks. The teachers treated these colour groups in the same ways they would treat gender. They said, “Good morning, blue kids, red kids!” “Let’s line up blue, red, blue, red.” Names were written on a blue or red bulletin board and students had a card of that colour on their desk. Students weren’t asked to compete with each other and the teachers showed no favouritism towards either group. They simply labelled the kids as being red or blue, over and over again.

In the next classroom, a ‘control’ group of children wore red and blue T-shirts but the teachers never mentioned the colour.

The result?

After only four weeks, children formed stereotypes about their colour-coded groups. They liked their own group better than the other group. Red-shirted children would say, ‘The blue kids are not as smart as the red kids.’ Just like with gender, they said that all blue kids act one way and no red kids act another way. They began to segregate themselves, playing with kids from their own colour group more than those with the other colour group, and were more willing to help kids in their own group.

The children in the control group didn’t form any stereotypes based on colour. If adults ignored the groups, even when there were very visible differences, children did too.

Simply by mentioning gender all the time, and sorting our world based on gender (think separate toilets for men and women, separate sporting events for men and women, separate clothing areas in department stores…) even if we never say anything stereotyped about a particular gender, our children will form the stereotypes for themselves.

We shape ourselves to fit our group.

Through similar classroom experiments, Bigler showed that children teach themselves to like and remember the activities favoured by their group, and tend to dislike and forget the details of activities favoured by the other group. This explains why boys may like remember every make and model of cars, while girls might like and remember details of how to use make up. Children quickly identify which group they belong to, and set about shaping their own knowledge preferences to fit.

We trick ourselves into believing our own stereotypes.

Children (and adults too) tend to forget exceptions to the stereotypes. For example, many children form the stereotype that women like cooking. Even when researchers show children a photo of a man standing in front of a stove, and tell the that this man likes to cook dinner for his family, if they ask the children about the man later, it doesn’t alter their stereotypes about cooking. Some children, when shown a picture of a female school principal would later remember her as the ‘lunch lady’ or ‘secretary’, while they’d remember the male cook at a hospital as being a doctor. We actually alter our memories to fit our stereotypes, rather than allowing our stereotypes to be altered by experience.

What can we do?

Because stereotypes are so hard to change, it’s good to get in at birth if possible. But we can all start to shift things now by ending the way we label and divide our world by gender. Instead of saying ‘fireman’ say ‘firefighter’. Instead of saying ‘See that man over there?’ say ‘See that person over there? The one with the blue shirt?’ Instead of saying ‘Good girl,’ say ‘Good kid’. Don’t invite ‘the girls’ over, invite your ‘friends’ instead. As shown in the  classroom with red and blue T-shirts, language is powerful. Small alterations can make a big difference.

Let’s get started today. Who wants to join me in going gender-neutral for one week? Watch your language and see if you can delete gender from it as much as possible.

If you’d like a print of this painting to remind you to stay on track with going gender-neutral, you can order one here.

What is it like to be the only Deaf person at a social event?

This is one of my favourite artworks. It hangs above my bed. It’s not that I don’t like socialising. There is nothing I love more than an intense, in-depth catch up with a good friend. But what I hate with a vengeance is going to events filled with hearing people who can’t sign, and being expected to somehow enjoy myself, while forbidden from doing any activity that is actually enjoyable.

Don Grushkin captured the problem exactly in his blog post about how boring it is for us.

‘Don’t dare bring a book or watch tv instead.  That’s “rude” (but it’s not rude to basically exclude a person who is supposed to be there?).  Don’t bring a Deaf friend to chat with and have the temerity to not use your voices to chat with them, thereby depriving the hearing people of knowing what you two were talking about (even though we have been sitting there among you, and nobody checks to make sure we know what they’re talking about).’

Countless times I have brought along a book, only to be told how rude it is for me to sit at the table in a restaurant reading. Tired of dealing with this accusation, I have branched out. I bring knitting, hand-sewing, or drawing instead. Then I am branded (somewhat unkindly) as weird or nanna-like. I try to wear the badge of weirdness proudly and just stick at it. But wouldn’t it be nice if it was socially acceptable instead?

One time, after spending all day with a group of hearing people, and wandering off for a cry, I was fetched back by someone who noticed I wasn’t handling things too well. We set up my phone and keyboard at the table and she typed for me some of the jokes people were sharing. I started to understand why they were all having such a rollicking ball while I was swallowing back tears. I felt a bit guilty about the effort this woman was making on my behalf, so to make it more worth her while, I typed back witty little quips in response to the things various people were saying. She laughed. Everyone stopped and stared at her. ‘You two are sharing secrets! That’s rude!’ The person mimed us huddled together, typing away wickedly. I didn’t want to make my typist feel awkward, so I just laughed it off. But what I wanted to say was, ‘How can you possibly accuse us of sharing secrets when you have spent ALL DAY laughing over jokes you wouldn’t share with me?!’

Faced with the pressure to attend family events, I tried bringing along a signing friend. Sure enough, I was later accused of being ‘anti-social’ when she was there, because we tended to sit together and chat with each other in Auslan, and didn’t mix with others much. They didn’t want me to bring her in future. It’s far less anti-social for me to sit there wondering what they are all talking and laughing about and whether they will take a pot-shot at me if I whip out my book or knitting.

If you are inviting a deaf person to a social event, stop and think about how they are going to access it. Perhaps you could book an interpreter (pay for it yourself – don’t ask the deaf person to – our interpreting bills are already high!) or invite some other deaf/signing people too. If there’s a movie involved, ensure it has subtitles. If there will be speeches, ask for a print out. Make sure the deaf person you invite knows the efforts you are going to to ensure their inclusion, so they know they don’t need to ask or try to figure it out themselves.