by Kendra Wolcott
I’ll never forget the first time I truly witnessed Sign Language in use: I was lazing around in my room, absent-mindedly watching a music video on YouTube when I noticed that during the final few moments of the video, the lead singer, rather than simply mouthing the words to the chorus, signed the words to convey the meaning (as he was an Australian artist, he was using Australian Sign Language, but of course I didn’t realize this at the time). I was immediately taken aback, and by the time the video was over, I had tears in my eyes; I had never seen Sign Language used in such a context before, to pull meaning from a song and express it through hand motions and body language, and I thought it was absolutely beautiful. It was at that moment that I knew I wanted to learn to sign.
By the time this happened, I had some prior knowledge of Sign Language; I could sign the alphabet in ASL and I vaguely remembered being taught simple signs in elementary school, but I had never drawn a parallel between those signs and a true, complex language. Even in the weeks after seeing that music video, when I was looking up vocabulary words and trying to teach myself to sign other songs, I thought that it was simply a word for word translation of English, or a visual representation of English on the hands. It had never occurred to me that it might have its own set of grammatical rules and structures, and looking back on that now, I realize what a terrible misconception that is. That is why my favorite person from Deaf history is William Stokoe.
When I say that he is my favorite, I don’t necessarily mean that I like him more than anyone else; every single person involved in the history of the Deaf played an important role in shaping the lives of Deaf people in America today, and all of them should be recognized for their contributions. But by establishing that ASL is a unique language unto itself, I truly think that William Stokoe made the most influential contribution in the way that the Deaf community as a whole has come to be perceived by hearing society.
Though the establishment of residential schools and other schools for the Deaf led to the creation of ASL and became wonderful places for Deaf people to share their language, become connected with people who they could understand and share ideas with, cultivate a culture, and prove that they could be just as successful as hearing people, they were still misunderstood by the majority of hearing society. For so long, ASL was dismissed as trivial, a set of gestures that could only communicate concrete ideas, and Oralism only intensified that ignorance. So to have a hearing person actually prove to everyone that ASL is a language just as unique, complex, and valid as any spoken language, well, it seems as though that truly caused hearing people to open their minds and gain a new appreciation for Deaf people and the beautiful language they share.
Today, the Deaf community is considered by many people to be an ethnic group; without the recognition of ASL as a true language, this would have never happened. Today, I hear so many people commenting on how fascinating Sign Language is and how much they would love to learn it. Because of William Stokoe and his passion for ASL, Deaf people are more free to express their native language, and the Deaf community is finally gaining the recognition that it deserves. And as a result, there are thousands of hearing people around the world who, just like myself, are moved and inspired every day by this beautiful, rich, incredible language.