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Nobody talks at ASL Fight Club, a sign-language immersion course

| Friday, April 6, 2012

Bree Blum, 29, wants to work with her hands one day.

Born able to hear, Blum learned American sign language at an early age so she could communicate with her older sister, Kristin, who has cerebral palsy.

She wants to learn it well enough to eventually teach deaf children, so she's made herself a fixture at a monthly sign-language immersion course in Edgewood.

Organizers call it their "ASL Fight Club."

Make no mistake: hands do fly fast around here, especially on busier nights, when as many as 40 people show up to sharpen their sign-language chops.

But no real fighting goes on. No one goes home bloody, no one walks out with a black eye.

Think more Marlee Matlin than Brad Pitt.

"You learn a ton," says Blum, of Wheeling, W.Va. "It's much better than trying to learn through some video or online tutorial."

ASL Fight Club, now in its second year, meets on the last Friday of each month at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. The group aims to help students improve their sign-language skills through immersion, whether they are beginners or seasoned interpreters in need of a refresher course.

"We try to make it as real for (students) as we can," says Jessica Murphy, a court interpreter who runs the classes with her husband, William. "It's the only way to learn."

Sessions are free. Most nights, students test their mettle in one-on-one confabs with someone like Devin Rosentreter, who was born deaf and is fluent in sign language.

"Some people with hearing say, 'I'll never be able to learn it.' But in many cases they may already know a few words and not even realize it," says Rosentreter, of Mt. Washington. "The base is there."

One example is the word "drive." You sign it by turning an imaginary steering wheel with both hands.

"It's important for them to learn in a setting like this," says Rosentreter, 35, who moved to the area from Chicago 3 1/2 years ago and works as a vocational rehabilitation counselor for the state. "The more people who know sign language, the better."

Fight Club students' skills were put to the test on a recent Friday. They had to follow the staccato-fast riffs of Keith Wann, a standup comedian from Clearwater, Fla. He performs his routine in sign language, while his wife translates with a microphone.

Wann dished on his childhood, his family and misconceptions the deaf and those with hearing have of each other, sending the audiences hands flying in air. Deaf people applaud by waving, instead of clapping.

It's not clear exactly how many people in the area are deaf or hard of hearing, or how many communicate solely with sign language. People weren't asked for the 2010 U.S. Census if they used sign language at home. The Census Bureau, however, does track "disability characteristics" in the American Community Surveys it does every year. Its 2010 ACS reports that 453,000 people "with hearing difficulty" live in Pennsylvania. Of them, roughly 42,000 are in Allegheny County.

Those numbers may create a need for more qualified people with sign-language proficiency.

There are currently 333 state-registered interpreters in Pennsylvania, and 30 provisionally registered interpreters, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. State registration is required in order to work as an interpreter in the state.

Those figures, however, don't include all certified interpreters in the state. And that's because not all nationally certified interpreters are eligible for state registration.

Court systems likely will be the most fertile territory for interpreters.

Statewide there are 61 people qualified to interpret proceedings in Pennsylvania courts, according to data provided by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. That includes six from New Jersey who are qualified to work in the state. Twelve court sign-language interpreters are in Allegheny County.

Schools also may need people fluent in ASL at some point.

In 2009, state officials transferred ownership of The Scranton State School for the Deaf to the deaf school in Edgewood. The move effectively eliminated Scranton's high school program, and scores of students have relocated to the Pittsburgh area since then.

Blum hopes to be ready for the next interpreter-hiring wave.

She earned a master's degree in elementary education from Marshall University, but is taking classes at a community college in Wheeling, W.Va., trying to get an interpreter's certificate.

The Fight Club sessions have helped her smoothe the learning curve between the conversational sign-language she's known for years and the formal sign-language she'll need to learn before she's certified.

"Being able to communicate and teach deaf students, it's something I'm passionate about," Blum says. "This is a great way to practice, to stay sharp in the meantime."


Facts about the deaf and hearing loss

• About 17 percent of American adults -- roughly 36 million people -- report some degree of hearing loss. Men are more likely to experience hearing loss than women.

• Two to 3 out of every 1,000 children in the United States are born deaf or hard of hearing, and nine in 10 children who are born deaf are born to parents who can hear.

• An estimated 4,000 new cases of sudden deafness occur each year in the United States.

• Roughly one third of the 188,000 people worldwide who have received cochlear implants to help them hear live in the United States. Of them, 25,500 are children.

Source: National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders

National Deaf History Month

This is the midway point of National Deaf History Month, which runs March 13 to April 15 and honors the contributions of the hearing-impaired and deaf community.

National Deaf History Month was the creation of two deaf employees at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C. They began teaching their colleagues sign language.The tutoring sessions eventually grew into Deaf Awareness Week.

The event was extended to an entire month in 1997.

The mid-month start and end of National Deaf History Month is based on three key historic dates -- Gallaudet University, the world's only university exclusively for deaf students, appointed its first deaf president on March 13, 1988; President Abraham Lincoln on April 8, 1864, signed a charter that allowed degrees to be granted to deaf students; the first permanent school for the deaf in the Western Hemisphere was established in Hartford, Conn., on April 15, 1817.

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