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New American Sign Language Club at Calhoun shows 'signs' of progress

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Sitting in a pew at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Plainview, Lily Hodson watched a woman standing near the altar, using her hands to translate the hour-long service into American Sign Language so deaf and hard-of-hearing congregants could follow along with the hymns and prayers.

“Every time I went, I would watch her sign the whole program,” said Hodson, of Merrick. “It was so cool to look at.”

Her interest led Hodson, who was 13 at the time, to teach herself ASL. Every Thursday, she attended “Intro to ASL” activities hosted by the church, read books and used online resources to develop her proficiency. Hodson even asked a deaf congregant named Cassandra to help her learn certain words in ASL, and, in return, Hodson signed the sermons for her.

“It was a win for me,” she recalled of communicating with Cassandra. “I taught my friends basic signs as well, and realized that this could seriously help other people.”

Last fall, Hodson, now 17, started an ASL club at Sanford H. Calhoun High School to teach  her peers, and raise awareness of deaf culture and history in the hearing community. 

“A lot of people tend to be uncomfortable talking to deaf or hard-of-hearing people because they never experienced the communication boundary between someone who is hearing and someone who is not,” Hodson said. “The goal is to make it more of a comfortable situation and teach kids who can hear that . . . you can communicate with them normally. You can cross that barrier.”

Hodson’s mother, Sharon, is a special-education paraprofessional at Calhoun and the club’s adviser. The two talked about starting the club a year ago, but plans changed when the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to switch to remote learning. With in-person meetings on hold for the first few weeks of the 2020-21 school year, club members met virtually. “It worked out pretty well,” Sharon said.

The club eventually received the go-ahead to hold in-person meetings in a classroom after school, with students on remote learning schedules attending via Google Classroom. The group initially met every other week, but now meets once a week because of growing interest.

“We have 10 to 15 kids who are pretty hardcore,” Sharon said. “I love their enthusiasm for it.”

At the beginning of each meeting, members begin by saying hello and introducing themselves using ASL. In addition to the basics, students are welcome to suggest words or phrases that they want to learn how to sign. Now, members are learning how to sign the Pledge of Allegiance, which they hope to present at a virtual Board of Education meeting to bring awareness to the club.

Hodson was inspired to teach her peers the pledge after watching Andrea Hall recite it in ASL at President Joseph Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20. In an interview with CBS News, Hall, a fire captain from South Fulton, Ga., explained that she wanted to pay homage to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community since her late father was deaf.

“The words of the pledge are significant not just for us, but for them as well,” Hall said.

This representation is particularly important amid the coronavirus pandemic. With the prevalence of mask-wearing, deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals are having greater difficulty communicating with hearing people in everyday situations.

Hodson’s best friend Madeline, 16, is a member of the ASL club. She is also hard of hearing. Since most of Madeline’s speech understanding is derived from lip reading, she said, masks and face coverings pose a communication barrier.

“I prefer to speak regularly since I’m only just starting to learn ASL,” she said, “but with the masks covering people’s mouth it’s hard for me. I have to strain every day but I get by.”

Madeline said she is excited to see deaf representation at Calhoun, and that the club’s presence could make people more accepting of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. But ASL is not just for those individuals, she said — anybody can benefit from it.

“If you’re somewhere noisy and need to communicate and knew how to sign you’d be all set,” she said.

“ASL at Calhoun is a wonderful experience for Madeline,” said Madeline’s mother, Maria. “It’s never easy to feel different. A club like this embraces and celebrates hard-of-hearing teens and supports all teens in building ASL opportunities and awareness.”

Calhoun’s ASL club meets every Tuesday after school. Students interested in joining can email shodson@bellmore-merrick.k12.ny.us for more information.