Watch my hands and face

The other day I learned that the football huddle originated with a team of deaf players intent on hiding their plans for the next play from the opposing team. The players represented Gallaudet University, an institution named for Dr. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a man credited with the development and growth of what we know as American Sign Language or ASL.

Dr. Gallaudet, a minister in Hartford, Connecticut, lived next door to a family whose nine year-old daughter was quite smart, but she couldn’t hear or speak. Gallaudet’s efforts to help the child met with little success, but he rounded up sufficient community support to help him travel to France. There he learned from experienced teachers of deaf students and persuaded Laurent Clerc, one of the best teachers, to accompany him to the United States, where in 1817 they founded the American School of the Deaf in Hartford, CT.

The school grew rapidly, attracting students from across the country, who arrived using signs that they had developed and used. American Sign language grew out of this rich mixture the children brought, as well as signs from the French school where Gallaudet learned from Clerc. Eventually, this initial effort led to development of Gallaudet University in Washington, DC.

A few days ago, I learned this and much more about sign language used by hearing-impaired people from my friend Judie Birchfield, who for 16 years has led an ensemble of teenage girls in demonstrations and performances of ASL in and around Chapel Hill . On Saturday, Judie’s group performed at the Chapel Hill Public Library. The Signsations, as they are known, presented a beautiful program of graceful signing in unison to recordings of about a dozen popular songs as performed by Lady Gaga, Barenaked Ladies, Miley Cyrus, Duran Duran and others.

Judie and a few of her friends also provide ASL interpretation for worshipers during Sunday services at United Church of Chapel Hill. What a wonderful gift she offers the community through this service and the Signsations.

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