Editor’s Note: This article was originally written by Gabby Jorio and Taylor Zambrano for Ithaca Week, an Ithaca College student publication. It is republished with permission.
ITHACA, NY – Barnes and Noble is mostly empty on a Tuesday afternoon in Ithaca. However, toward the back of the bookstore, members of the group American Sign Language Chat Ithaca sit closely together around a table communicating mostly through hand movement and lip reading.
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Matt Dankanich and his boyfriend Kaleb Maarschalk joined the chat around 5:30 pm. Initially, the pair was timid as they approached the group reluctantly, but after sensing the open and welcoming environment of the group, they became some of the most active and animated participants. Maarschalk expressed his desire to learn ASL to communicate with Dankanich who is hard of hearing.
ASLCI is an open group that practices signing from 5 to 7 p.m. every Tuesday in Barnes and Noble. There is no registration fee or process, and members are welcome to come and go as they please within that time span. Currently, this is the only known group in Ithaca dedicated to teaching people about sign language.
Some participants have skills that are more developed than others, but all of them work together to ensure that they feel comfortable enough to make mistakes and learn from them.
Aurora Appleton, co-founder and coordinator of the group, stresses the importance of practicing sign language as much as possible.
“If you don’t use it, you lose it,” she said.
The participants of the class also seemed to believe in the benefits of practice. One woman came to the group for the first time and warned the rest that she has not practiced for awhile and that, as a result, her skills may not be as polished. When she expressed her timidness through her signing, Appleton reassured her. “We’re all at different levels,” she said.
She signed with her hands moving quickly. A participant sitting next to her told her it would be easier if she went slower.
As a freshman high school student, Appleton runs each session on her own. She begins the meeting by asking each person about his or her day. By observing her mannerisms and precise hand movement, it is easy to tell that she is passionate about ASL. Despite the fact that the discussions are silent, her character is very animated and she is highly attentive to every group member.
She founded ASLCl in August 2015 and has signed since her early childhood.
“It’s always been a love of mine,” she said. Her involvement in the signing community was inspired by her mother who worked at the Lexington School and Center for the Deaf.
According to Appleton, there is a wide variety of participants that are involved in the ASLCI’s weekly meetings.
“We have people who don’t even know the alphabet, and we have people who are advanced or native signers,” she said. “It’s a great way to interact with signers who are on different levels and learn from people who are situated above you.”
Joshua Bastian Cole, a PhD student at Cornell University for Performing and Media Arts, was one of the first members to show up at the meeting Tuesday night. Within his profession, he focuses mostly on transgender actors, which led him to disability theater and deaf theater. Becoming a part of deaf theater led him to ASL and the need to practice as often as possible.
“So many of the plays incorporate ASL into… not only the text of the plays, but now the choreography in musicals. To really fully appreciate it and to ever be able to communicate with the deaf actors themselves, I really need to learn the language,” Cole said.
Cole had taken ASL classes before joining ASLCI, but after not signing frequently, he had forgotten a lot of the vocabulary.
“It does take a lot of practice,” he said. In addition to participating in the weekly chats, he said he also takes ASL classes at Ithaca College because Cornell does not offer them.
Dankanich, a fourth year psychology major at Ithaca College, said he found the group online and decided to check it out. He said he enjoys signing with the group and working with other people on their sign language, so he comes back often with Maarschalk.
There is a six-class rudimentary course offered at Lifelong, a not-for-profit organization in Ithaca that works to strengthen the lives of adults 50 years of age and older in Tompkins County. The course began Feb. 19 and will end March 25.
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