According to the Census Bureau, 11.5 million Americans—roughly 3.5% of the population—have some sort of hearing impairment, which ranges from difficulty in hearing conversation to total hearing loss. Despite how prevalent it is, very few people outside of the deaf community know American Sign Language (ASL). While some initiatives have sprouted here and there, such as the Starbucks “signing store” that opened in Washington, D.C., or the face masks with a window for lip reading created at the height of the pandemic, every new effort to make deaf or hard-of-hearing people feel included is more than welcome.
Such was the case of the Nansemond Parkway Elementary School in Suffolk, Virginia, where a deaf lunch lady named Leisa Duckwall had been working for four years, serving students breakfast and lunch. To order, kids would point at the food they wanted, then Duckwall would point again and wait for them to confirm with a “yes” or “no.” She had never received a “hello” or a “thank you” from the children.
Recognizing this struggle after having grown up with a hard-of-hearing family, fourth grade teacher Kari Maskelony approached Duckwall, and launched a casual signing conversation while waiting for lunchtime to be over. Suddenly, the teacher realized things had gone oddly still around them. “The kids were all watching us,” Maskelony told The Virginian-Pilot.
This gave the teacher an idea. The following day, she asked her students, “Do you guys want to learn how to sign to her what you want for lunch instead of pointing?” and they all confirmed with a resounding yes. The first things they learned how to sign were common school dishes, such as fish and chicken, as well as learning some letters so they could tell whether they wanted carrots with a “C” or rice with an “R” on the a side. “And they just wanted to learn more,” Maskelony recalls. “So I was like, ‘OK, let’s keep going.’”
Eventually, the school's principal, Janet Wright-Davis, realized what was going on, and decided to extend the endeavor to the whole school. “I thought, ‘You know what? Is it just Ms. Maskelony’s class who are doing it. Let’s teach the whole school,’” Wright-Davis explains. “‘Let’s teach the whole school sign language.’” This even led to making morning announcements via video monitors, where a new word in sign language is taught every week.
While the students find it fun, and are proud when they finally master a complex sign such as “good morning,” Duckwall knows this is something bigger. “Not only is it great for the kids because they can learn a new skill that they can carry with them and actually use with other people that they meet,” she says, “but I think it (is) great because equal inclusivity and equal access is so important. It’s just something that we don’t often see.”