A hearing person learning sign language was discouraged by a negative encounter with a deaf person. About forum members shared their positive and negative encounters with deaf people who saw them using sign language:
"I am a hearing person who has been interested in the Deaf culture for many years. I learned some ASL years ago, and practiced it off and on, but didn't have much contact with the Deaf. One day in Walmart I passed a man and his wife who were signing to each other and I made the sign for "Excuse me" since the row was narrow. He stopped and asked me if I was Deaf. I said no, but I knew some sign, but he just waved me off and made a sign I've been told means "lousy", and walked away. I was crushed! I hadn't meant to offend, but clearly the fact that I had the audacity to use his language to speak to him was something I had no right to do in his mind. "I am also a hearing person, and I have been signing for about 25 years. (I have no Deaf family members.)
From that point on I was afraid to approach Deaf people. I wanted to sign to them, and I wanted to be involved in their lives and cultures, and particularly in a ministry involving them, but everytime I tried to sign to a Deaf person, I would freeze up and forget any sign I wanted to use. Eventually a couple of Deaf women in my church welcomed me, and encouraged me to sit with them and learn from them. They are always patient and don't mind the times they have to repeat or correct my sign, and I have found that I am improving quickly with my signing. Iunderstand that the man in Walmart is coming from a life of rejection and bitterness from a hearing world that has no patience for him, and having seen how many of them are treated, I can't say I entirely blame him. Hopefully someday those of us who understand and know better can help bridge the gap between our world and theirs."
My experiences with the Deaf have been similar to those described in the message above. I've had both good and bad experiences.
I remember my first "bad" experience, back around 1984. I was attending a stage production of "Children of a Lesser God". Prior to the show, I was sitting in the audience and was signing with a group of friends who attended the show with me. A Deaf man caught my eye, and all he signed to me was "practice your sign(ing)". Apparently my signing wasn't good enough for him; and it was clear from his body language and facial expressions that he wasn't too thrilled with the quality of my signing and meant to let me know what he thought of me (as a hearing person) and my signing skills.
I wasn't talking to him; I was talking with my friends. (He was eavesdropping.) This was his one chance to make a first impression, and all he could do was criticize my signing. What a turn-off.
Flash-forward 20 years. I was in a Borders bookstore, which has a coffee shop as part of its layout. My wife and I had sat down there to rest after looking through the bookstore. She and I were signing a conversation, since it was rather noisy, and my wife is severely hard-of-hearing. At one point, my wife got up for a cup of coffee, and a Deaf boy of about 10 came over to my table, and asked (signed) me if I was Deaf. I said no, that I was hearing, and that my wife is HOH. Before I could ask any questions or invite him to join us (he was with an adult), he made a dismissive gesture toward me, and walked away from my table without even saying good-bye. He hadn't even waited for my wife to return to the table so that I could introduce them to each other.
I've had a few other incidents that mirror these two, but these stand out clearly in my memory.
I understand also that people are people no matter where you go, and these are two extreme example of rude behavior.
At the other end of the spectrum, I've had plenty of Deaf and HOH (who sign) who are very patient and are willing to put up with my less-than-perfect signing skills. Even after 25 years, I still make mistakes when signing. However, there are plenty of Deaf people who I've met who appreciate the fact that I've taken the time to learn sign language.
I've worked with people from all over the world, and I've always shown nothing but respect for visitors who come to the United States and speak English. They've taken the time to learn my language, and I appreciate it. I never make fun of their English skills, and never put them down if they make mistakes. (If necessary, I will help them along, since I've had training in French, Greek, Spanish, German, Russian, and Japanese.)
I think that the Deaf community should extend the same courtesy to the hearing community if they've taken the time and made the effort to learn sign language.
Unlike K.M., I'm not afraid to approach the Deaf; but I do exercise caution, and have to stop and think about how well or poorly I'd be received. It's daunting, but I press on anyway.
BTW -- if I let a little fear of my signing skills get in the way, I'd never