Signs of progress
The best-known sign in Deaf culture, the one for “I love you,” was a big hit at a Surrey housing complex during a five-day workshop last summer. Posters and T-shirts were emblazoned with the gesture – one hand with the thumb, index finger and pinky finger pointing up, and the ring and middle fingers down, palm facing out – and the blending of the hand shapes for the letters I, L and Y for “I love you” embodied the attempt by a new family with several deaf members to connect with its hearing neighbours.
The family of Kimberly Wood and Barry Ranger moved into the Bristol Estates housing complex in the Surrey neighbourhood of Whalley in late 2011. Wood and Ranger are both deaf. Their eldest son, Zak, 16, is also deaf. Their middle child, 12-year-old Zimar, can hear, and so can Zeva, his eight-year-old sister, but Zander, 10, only has partial hearing, and uses a hearing aid at school but not at home.
Unfortunately, the family wasn’t welcomed with open arms by the other residents of the small, low-income neighbourhood, who had no experience interacting with deaf people.
“When we first moved in here, everyone was very cold, and not friendly,” says Wood, telling her story in sign language, interpreted by her hearing son, Zimar. “The kids around the complex were mocking and bullying not just Zak, but all of my kids, for being different. It was very hard on us.”
Wood had moved her family to the Vancouver area from Edmonton so that her children could attend the BC Provincial School for the Deaf, located in Burnaby at South Slope Elementary and Burnaby South Secondary.
“For Zak and Zander, it is important for them to be comfortable in a school environment where they can learn and thrive without being scared of ridicule from others.”
But while her kids were thriving at school, they were not comfortable in their own neighbourhood. Wood knew she had to end the tension between her family and their neighbours. She believed the problem was that the other kids had no idea how to interact with her children.
Wood decided that she and her children would provide the equivalent of Deaf Culture 101, calling their project Hands-On Fun Week. The plan was to show the local kids how to communicate simple phrases in sign language and explain some of the finer points of deaf etiquette. But Wood, who depends on her provincial disability benefit for income, knew she couldn’t cover the costs of an extended workshop.
One day, while visiting a farmers market in Surrey, she met Joyce Fan, co-ordinator for the local Neighborhood Small Grants (NSG) program. Fan sat at a table with brochures about NSG, which was created in 1999 by Vancouver Foundation to fund small, local projects that would create bonds and a sense of belonging in neighbourhoods.
“I just took it and applied for the grant and it got approved,” says Wood, who received $1,000 from NSG and put her plan into action last August.
Over five days, she and her kids taught the participants many sign language gestures, including those for basic greetings such as “Hi” and “How are you?” They showed the participants how sign language is central to Deaf culture. And they explained how hearing people can become friends with deaf people by mastering a few key signs.
The Wood-Ranger family also told the neighbourhood kids that deaf people do not consider themselves disabled. “We look at ourselves as able bodies who can do anything except hear,” says Wood. They explained at the workshop that most deaf people dislike the term “hearing impaired” and prefer being described as “deaf” or “hard of hearing.” They told their neighbours that it’s not rude to walk between two people who are signing to each other.
Wood showed them how deaf people “listen” to music with their feet, through vibrations in the floor. She told them that there are about 500,000 deaf Canadians. They talked about famous deaf people such as Marlee Matlin, the Academy Award-winning actress, and Helen Keller, who overcame her inability to hear and see to become a world-famous advocate for people with disabilities. About 30 kids attended the workshop and 100 people showed up at the barbecue on the final day. Friendships were made between the newcomers and the existing residents, and a new sense of community was forged.
“People who didn’t know each other before Hands-On Fun Week started becoming friends. It was really cool for the parents and everybody who came,” says Zimar.