Contributed by Monica Alves, Community Engagement Team

Ronnie, John, and Stephanie at Norfolk House

John places his hands up on either side of his glasses, forming the letter C with his right and L with his left. He spells out C-O-O-L with a hearty chuckle that lights up the room. A deaf man living with a developmental disability, John finds ways to inject humour into his daily routine and enjoys making people laugh at his residential home in the charming neighbourhood of Norfolk Street, Burnaby BC (and just about everywhere else too – look for him sporting a red clown’s nose at public events!).

Communication is Key

John and Residential Services Facilitator, Stephanie, have built a healthy relationship of respect and understanding through the power of American Sign Language (ASL). In January of 2018, Stephanie started her work at Norfolk without knowing a single bit of sign language. She shares, “When I first came to Norfolk, we had one individual who was deaf. This motivated me to take an ASL course and I almost immediately fell in love with it! I actually took some additional training outside of work as well, and bought an ASL book that I could learn at home too.”

Today, Stephanie, John and fellow resident Ronnie, engage in effective conversations with each other using ASL. This gives John and Ronnie more autonomy in their lives to make choices in their daily routines on matters like how they want to dress, what they want to eat, where they want to go, and most importantly, how they feel. Having the ability to deliberately convey all of this and more is greatly beneficial to caregivers. This can help them provide the most person centered, quality level of support in order for our persons served to lead healthy and fulfilled lives in their communities.

We dropped by Norfolk to see some signing in action! The crew was incredibly welcoming and had a blast being Hollywood actors for the day. Watch Stephanie, John, and Ronnie as they engage in a casual conversation that leads to some delicious afternoon beverages.

Stephanie is able to make meaningful connections like these outside of Norfolk as well. She uses ASL to engage with others throughout the posAbilities community.  “Learning ASL definitely changed my interactions with the individuals who use sign language – not only at Norfolk House, but also when I get to go to the picnic or head office and there’s somebody who signs there. In the past, I would only be able to have very minimal communication. Now, I can ask anybody who signs about their day and things going on in their life.”

Conquering the Learning Curve

But it wasn’t an easy start. Like any skill, signing was something that Stephanie had to work hard at to master. “A very basic conversation with the guys at Norfolk who I support would take a really long time. I would have to finger spell everything or physically write on pen and paper. So for a ten minute conversation, we would only really get through ‘How’s your day?’ Now in ten minutes I can find out about their whole day, what their plans are for tomorrow, plus any new exciting information they want to share with me.” It may have been a struggle at first, but with a little patience and a whole lot of practice, the hard work paid off. Once she started getting the hang of it, signing became second nature to Stephanie.  “I find a lot of the time, even when I’m communicating with persons served who aren’t deaf, I am still signing and I don’t even realize it. It becomes that much of a habit.”

Must-Knows for the ASL Community

Hand shape, palm orientation, movement, and facial expressions are just a few things to consider in order to sign clearly and correctly. Facing the individual head on and using exaggerated facial expressions can be very helpful to achieve successful communication between each other. Aside from these basics, our team members share some key factors to keep in mind when communicating with a deaf or hearing impaired person served. Before even initiating a conversation, you may need to get their attention first.

Our Team Leader Andrea shares that she will often wave or tap the individual on the shoulder, being sure to approach wide as to not startle them. She also advises to flick the lights in the room. Furthermore, Stephanie stresses the importance of being cautious to not sneak up on somebody. This is something us hearing-abled people can take for granted – the process of walking into a room and assuming most people will hear us come in. “That can really startle someone who is deaf and cause them to be off balance, fall, or even have a little panic attack,” says Stephanie.

Interestingly enough, every deaf individual tucks in their own bit of personality into their signing. “It’s kind of like an accent, or their own version of slang,” Stephanie explains.

“Everyone has their own little flare. It’s really important, especially if you’re very new to signing, that if you’re unsure of something, to make sure that you’re confirming through finger spelling the word back and not just nodding your head and assuming you know what they’re saying. Especially with our persons served, a lot of people have dexterity issues where maybe they can’t make the proper signs, they do something different that’s maybe a bit easier for them. It’s really important to make sure that you guys are having the same conversation.”

Achieving Successful Person-Centered Support

Although Stephanie came across a few communication barriers, her willingness to learn and ‘never give up’ attitude helped her overcome these challenges. “When I first started signing at work, a lot of time needed to be allotted to have small conversations when it came to writing on pen and paper. For that barrier, it definitely helped instead of spelling something and continuing on with the conversation, to always spell it and ask the person served to teach me the sign. This way, in the future I would know it and I wouldn’t have to constantly spell the same word over and over again – learning as I go.” This method also gave the individuals at Norfolk the opportunity to be involved in their caregiver’s learning experience. John was very enthusiastic about teaching Stephanie his language. “John really helped me learn and was very happy and very proud that he’s been teaching me sign.”

When a new person served, Ronnie, was welcomed into the Norfolk home, they discovered he has very different sign. This may be due to some dexterity muscle issues with his hands, hindering his ability to finger spell properly and produce the correct direct hand gestures. “A lot of the time I’ll see staff assume that they know what an individual is saying and just nod their head in agreement. But maybe Ronnie or the other persons served aren’t getting the answers they’re wanting. It’s really important to break down that barrier and find out their signing style. I will express to Ronnie, ‘Oh okay, is that the sign you’re going to use? This is what I use.’ This helps to ensure that we’re truly understanding the person we support.”

Aegis West Sing and Sign

Living with both a physical and developmental disability may appear to be quite a challenging way of life. But through the power of sign language and the bonds our persons served and caregivers forge, these challenges fade away. At posAbilities, we offer ASL training sessions to our team members at our Head Office. We also host a weekly Sing and Sign program with Aegis West, where all are welcome to join and learn sign language through the magic of music. Check out our events calendar for details on our free drop-ins! Queer ASL is another amazing program we recommend to LGBTQ+ folks who are interested in learning sign in a positive and safe environment in Vancouver. Visit their website for details on their upcoming summer classes.