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Sign language advocates create visual book for hearing and deaf students

  • Dee Clanton is the state coordinator for the Department of Education's Office for the Deaf/Hard of hearing and has signed for a number of books/DVDs that teach Americn Sign Language; Wednesday, March 27, 2012. <br/><br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

    Dee Clanton is the state coordinator for the Department of Education's Office for the Deaf/Hard of hearing and has signed for a number of books/DVDs that teach Americn Sign Language; Wednesday, March 27, 2012.

    (ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

  • ASl Tales creates books and DVDs that are storybooks that are paired with the American Sign Language telling.

    ASl Tales creates books and DVDs that are storybooks that are paired with the American Sign Language telling.

  • Dee Clanton is the state coordinator for the Department of Education's Office for the Deaf/Hard of hearing and has signed for a number of books/DVDs that teach Americn Sign Language; Wednesday, March 27, 2012. <br/><br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)
  • ASl Tales creates books and DVDs that are storybooks that are paired with the American Sign Language telling.

e_SSLq T he Boy Who Cried Wolf, The Princess and the Pea and Rapunzel are classic children’s stories that have been adapted, retold and redrawn in classrooms and homes over and over again.

But Dublin resident Laurie Meyer has found a new way to tell those stories: through American Sign Language. She believes the books her company, ASL Tales, is creating can revolutionize the way all children, deaf and hearing, learn about and access language.

“We don’t want to be targeted as a book for kids with disabilities,” said Meyer, co-founder of ASL Tales. Instead, her team is thinking, “How can we change the world if everybody had access to this language?”

ASL Tales published its first book in 2008, and its latest project, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, will be released next month. Each book comes with a DVD on which a professional retells the story in sign language, going page by page alongside the illustrations. The DVDs also offer clues that help viewers break down what the signs mean and how they fit together.

Meyer and ASL Tales’s co-founder Pinky Aiello have worked with people from across the country to create the books, but The Boy Who Cried Wolf was made almost exclusively by New Hampshire residents. Concord residents H. Dee and Connie Clanton did the sign language and illustrations for the book, respectively, and other contributors come from Bedford, Dover, Manchester and elsewhere. Parents, teachers and others who want to purchase the books can find more information online at asltales.net.

The goal of ASL Tales is to help children learn language in a visually rich way, and they are not meant exclusively for people who want to become fluent in sign language.

“You don’t have to be curious about American Sign Language to have these books be helpful, that’s the part that people have the hardest time understanding,” Meyer said.

Visual learning can improve the way hearing students learn language, and it allows students with disabilities or language problems to understand stories and words in a different way, Meyer said. The books have also been translated into several other languages, including Arabic, French and Portuguese.

“One of the things that I’ve said for a long time is that ASL, I think, could be a universal precaution against language delay,” Meyer said.

Although the company has been producing books for nearly five years, its been difficult to get the books into classrooms, Meyer said. Many librarians will put them into the section for students with disabilities, but the books are meant for all children, she said.

Another goal of ASL Tales is correcting misunderstandings about what American Sign Language is, she said. Sign language is not simply stringing together a series of signs for different words. Like any language, there is a specific way to put signs together to construct sentences and communicate messages.

“If you teach kids a few words in Spanish, nobody would ever say you know Spanish,” she said. “People say that all the time about sign language.”

Dee Clanton, who does the sign language on the DVD for The Boy Who Cried Wolf, works in the New Hampshire Department of Education as coordinator for the Office for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. He’s known Meyer for years, and when the opportunity to work on a book came up, he and his wife, Connie, didn’t hesitate.

“I think the goal of ASL Tales is to help people who are not deaf or did not grow up in deaf environments to understand a little bit more about what it means,” he said. (Both Dee and Connie are deaf, and they used interpreters to speak to the Monitor.)

There are about 30 million people in the United States who suffer from some form of hearing loss, and about 3 million who are fully deaf, Dee said. Most non-deaf Americans don’t interact with deaf people on a daily basis, and a language barrier hinders communication when those interactions do happen. For about 96 percent of deaf children born, they are the first deaf person their parents have ever met, he said.

In addition to his work at the Education Department, Dee teaches sign language classes at NHTI. He shows his students DVDs for the stories and encourages them to see how much of the story they can pick up just through the signing. “The goal is to allow people to feel comfortable and not to struggle from the first second that they put (the DVD) in,” Dee said.

The clues and step-by-step explanations of how to sign each page of the book included on the DVD are keys to helping people understand the language.

“I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what ASL is, and that it’s actually a language, it’s not just English on your hands,” Dee said.

Both Dee and Connie said they learned new things about their native language through creating the books, such as how they use their facial expressions to describe certain situations.

“It was amazing how much I learned about the language, in regards to facial expression and meaning. What a wonderful program for children who are visual to see how this language just comes together and tells these stories,” said Connie, who teaches ASL in the Manchester Program for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing within the city’s public school system.

She teaches sign language to deaf and hearing students. When hearing students first learn sign language, they feel very awkward when using the exaggerated facial expressions that are part of ASL, she said. What they don’t realize is that people who speak already use facial expressions to communicate.

“Hearing people don’t even realize they use facial expression all the time,” she said. “They already know some of our language.”

That also means learning sign language from a book is much harder than learning it in 3D, which is what makes the DVDs a valuable tool. “You can’t learn it from two dimensional, you need to be able to see it,” Connie said.

Putting together the book took nearly two years, and it was tiring at times, Connie said. She is an artist but had never illustrated a book before. But as an educator herself, she believes ASL Tales is an effective teaching tool for all language learners. Connie also knows a fellow teacher who videotaped her students using ASL Tales and shared it with her. The students’ reactions to the video showed her the hard work put into making the book was worth it.

“She showed me the video tape, I couldn’t believe it. It was amazing. It was proof that ASL Tales really, really works if you teach it,” she said.

Meyer hopes that through ASL Tales, the use of sign language as a learning tool for all children will continue to grow. In addition to exposing them to a language, ASL Tales gives hearing children better visual-spacial understanding and a completely new way to access books. It can also create a more inclusive learning environment between students who are deaf and those who aren’t.

“The point is: Everybody benefits,” Meyer said.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @kronayne.)

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