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The Hy-Life: Beer and American Sign Language build bridges for hearing community

Students attend an ASL course at Streetcar 82

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Posted on: May 9, 2024

By JESSICA ARENDS

 

Students attend an ASL course at Streetcar 82
Allen Markel has been teaching the four-session American Sign Language class at Streetcar 82 Brewing Co. since 2022.
Photo credit: Jacob Hunting

On a warm April evening, about 10 people with freshly poured beers gathered hesitantly around a large wooden table at Streetcar 82 Brewing Co. 

While the beer vats hummed and overhead fans ticked, instructor Allen Markel silently wrote “Rules” on a whiteboard and pointed to his first finger to indicate rule number one. Dragging an open palm with his thumb tucked in down his cheek, he signed and mouthed the word “beer” and adamantly shook a finger to say, “No.” A few folks pulled their glasses closer to them and glanced at one another. Markel broke a smile, lifted his eyebrows and waved an open palm: just kidding. Laughter, a release of nervous jitters — our first American Sign Language lesson: the sign for “beer,” along with the encouraging message, Relax! We’re going to have fun learning how to sign.

To introduce himself, Markel made the sign for “deaf” by drawing a line with his index finger up his cheek to his ear and pointing to himself. Making a sad face he shook his finger: “No.” Then he made the sign for “deaf” again, smiled and pointed to himself. His message: There’s no need to feel sad. I’m Deaf, and I am happy. For Markel, our attitude towards the Deaf community is just as important as learning how to sign.  

With no verbs to conjugate and an abundance of visual cues, ASL is easy to learn, right? Not exactly. There are three different ways to sign the number 25. When signing the time, like 12 o’clock, you give your hand a shake to say “on the dot,” whereas signing the date, like April 12, is done with the fingers held still. 

When asked how it felt to communicate without speaking for 90 minutes, Silver Spring resident Alexis White said, “It was uncomfortable, honestly. I had to keep reminding myself not to talk. But signing is more intuitive than I thought it would be.” 

White said she first tried to learn ASL using an app, but there weren’t many to choose from, and she realized after the first Streetcar 82 class that what she learned from the app was not accurate. “It’s really nice to come and learn from the experts!” she said. White also found this class to be much more affordable than a university-sponsored ASL class. 

Hearing students practice ASL at an introductory class in April at Streetcar 82 Brewing Co.
Photo credit: Jacob Hunting

I discovered I don’t need to bob my head back and forth when spelling out my name or bend my knees when my hands move side to side to ask “What?” Most signs are gestured within the frame of one’s torso and face, as Markel showed us by drawing an imaginary rectangle in front of his body — no need to flail your arms out to the side when circling one index finger around the other to ask “Where?” 

Brian Robinson, a recent transplant to Hyattsville, said he took the class to learn language skills outside of his usual mode as a speech writer.  

“Language is the base software of how we interact with each other,” Robinson said. “What if you didn’t have spoken words? How do we figure that out? How do we communicate?” 

For Robinson, learning ASL is also a way to become better acquainted with the local community. “It isn’t just an intellectual hobby,” he said. “With Gallaudet University right here and Streetcar — you could actually use this for an emergency or in everyday life.”

Indeed, for the lack of an ASL interpreter, Oklahoma City police did not contact the family of a deaf man, who was stabbed and hospitalized this past March. The man’s mother didn’t know of his critical condition until after his release when he was found wandering his apartment building incoherent. When the mother asked the police for an explanation, they told her they didn’t have a sign language interpreter on duty, so they weren’t able to ask her son for family contact information.   

Ever since she saw people signing on the Metro when she first moved to D.C. 10 years ago, Leslie Washington has been looking to learn ASL. “We ask people in the Deaf community to join our world,” Washington said. “I wanted to have an opportunity to be a part of their world.”

This is exactly what Markel hopes to achieve with his teaching. ASL is not just for those in the Deaf community, Markel said in an email, but also for those who identify as DeafBlind, DeafDisabled, Hard of Hearing and Late-Deafened and for hearing people who want to practice the language. 

Markel earned a master’s in sign language teaching from Gallaudet University, in 2013, and has been teaching the four-session ASL class at Streetcar 82 since 2022. He lives in University Park, and comes from a large deaf family: both parents, all four of his brothers and several cousins, nieces and nephews are members of the Deaf community.

According to Streetcar 82 owner Mark Burke, their May ASL class sold out in two hours. Burke said he is proud to see this enthusiastic response and hopes that, through ASL, the connection between the Deaf community and hearing people will only get stronger. 


Jessica Arends is the arts, culture and lifestyle columnist for the Life & Times.

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