Show Me a Sign

My sister Kathy is taking an advanced class in American Sign Language. She has no plans to become an interpreter, so I assume she is doing it so that she can talk behind peoples’ backs without asking them to turn around. She says that for now she is better at talking in the language than she is at listening, but it seems like most people have that problem right now, hearing impaired or not.

People have been communicating without words since the dawn of man, and ASL dates to the 1800s. It uses an alphabet composed of hand symbols and motions, as well as movements called “classifiers,” which in some cases are similar to pantomimes. The signs usually use only the hands, but other parts of the body may also come into play. And to make things more confusing, sign language can differ in other countries just as much as written language.

I’m familiar with the usual hand gestures, like “check, please!” where you sign a little imaginary restaurant bill with a little imaginary pen, or “A-OK!” where you make a little circle with your first two fingers and hold the rest up like a rooster’s comb, or the sexist comment, “dangerous curves,” where you wave two arcs in the air with both hands, three if she also has a thorax. And, of course, the one-finger-in-the-air signal I got the other day when I ACCIDENTALLY cut someone off in traffic, which I assume means, “I was here first.”

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We’re all getting older here, and I wish my senses would come to their senses. My eyes are temperamental, and after 50 years of playing in rock bands, I have to admit my ears are not what they used to be, and maybe they never were. My wife thinks I need a Seeing Eye dog and a hearing-ear dog. I wish that I could have my entire life closed-captioned so that I would know what’s going on. I mistook the words “dress pants” for “ trespass” once and it got me into a lot of trouble. I don’t know if there will be a hearing regarding the incident but I haven’t heard anything.

People use sign language all the time without even thinking about it. I was watching the Supremes on an old “Ed Sullivan Show” with the sound muted, and I could ascertain that I should stop in the name of love before I broke their hearts without even hearing the music. Then I noticed that Diana Ross made the sign for “pass interference” and then “illegal use of hands,” so just be aware that the Supremes may be difficult to please.

Politicians usually have interpreters for the deaf at press conferences now, and it’s hard to concentrate on what the speaker is saying with all the dramatics that go on in the corner of the television screen. Some of these people look like they are trying out for a part in “Swan Lake,” a part somewhere near the deep end of the lake where it’s hard to swim.

Like everything else these days there is a lot of fine-tuning that comes with a better understanding of the subject. Some who were born without hearing prefer the term “deaf” to “hearing-impaired,” which might be more accurate for people who experienced hearing loss later in life. Some identify with a “Deaf culture” unique to their set of challenges and beliefs, while others prefer to assimilate fully into a mainstream culture and let adaptation on both sides happen organically.

So let me just sum things up by saying that I probably didn’t hear what you just said. That being possibly said, actions speak louder than words, so when all is said and done, no one will hear you if you didn’t do anything.

Say hello to Rick Melén at

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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