Sign language gets 'loud' through touch

A group of DeafBlind experts gather at Western Oregon University for hands-on training of pro-tactile American Sign Language.

MONMOUTH — Experts in American Sign Language and pro-tactile ASL started a week-long training session at Western Oregon University on Monday.

Members of the public are invited to a pro-tactile American Sign Language social from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Aug. 10 at Mendi’s Pizza, 1695 Monmouth St., Independence.

This event is an opportunity to socialize with the local ASL and PTASL-friendly communities.

The conversations were not audible, but bursts of laughter filled the room.

Joking and laughter breaks the tension, said Yashaira Romilus, who traveled from Tacoma for the training.

Romilus is DeafBlind and CM Hall, co-director of WOU’s DeafBlind Interpreting National Training & Resource Center, interpreted for this interview.

Romilus is one of seven nationally-renowned DeafBlind people who are experts in PTASL teaching this week. They are training 36 deaf and hearing ASL interpreters from across the United States, with the intention that those interpreters will be able to share their newly acquired PTASL skills with DeafBlind people in their own communities.

In 2017, WOU was awarded a five-year, multimillion dollar federal grant through the Rehabilitation Services Administration to train ASL interpreters in PTASL.

Hall said WOU won the grant, in part, because of the university’s leadership in research and effective interpreter education. WOU also has built relationships with leaders in the national DeafBlind community and movement, she said.

The Aug. 6 training is the first time these interpreters and PTASL experts have come together like this, Romilus said.

“It’s literally hands-on, physical, 3-D contact,” Romilus said. “It’s an awesome experience and opportunity.”

Growing up DeafBlind, it was hard for her to fully express her emotions, she said. Interpreters don’t always know precisely how she is feeling.

Facial expressions are important to understanding ASL, but people who, like Romilus, are DeafBlind, can’t see someone’s face.

The element of touch that is inherent in PTASL overcomes that obstacle. When using PTASL, people are in constant physical contact with each other – a hand on the knee, the shoulder or the arm.

People feel each other’s hands while signing and a squeeze to the shoulder can be used to indicate the intensity of the emotion someone is trying to express.

The group of trainers and interpreters will spend most of the week on the WOU campus, but has a trip to Newport Beach planned for Aug. 8.

During that outing, the group will walk the waterfront, where interpreters will describe the visual environment and practice PTASL skills, such as finding opportunities for tactile exploration.

Romilus said she was excited to see old friends and new faces at the training.

“I’m just really, really excited to share this information,” Romilus said.

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