With Communication, Comes Friendship

While many individuals have returned to work, many have not. Instead, they are brushing up on their job development skills, and now that includes American Sign Language (ASL).

Individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) that are non-verbal communicate in many ways, and it isn’t always with ASL. Haig is one of a handful of individuals who uses sign language; however, his peers and staff do not use or understand ASL and have difficulty communicating with him. At the suggestion of Haig’s mother, he began working with an ASL teacher to practice signing and to expand his skills. Employment Manager Jenny Bishop and Director of Employment Lori-Ann Hoberman saw this as an opportunity to bring this skill to other participants and staff. Those who have not returned to work have lost that stimulation and the sense of accomplishment they feel after receiving a paycheck. Learning sign language will give them that feeling of accomplishment and help everyone communicate more clearly.

Haig (back left), with his peers & staff in the Sign Language Unit.

The challenge was how to implement it. The ASL teacher only works with Haig once a week for an hour, and most staff do not know ASL. So, they needed to become creative. It began with a few signing posters in one of the vacant rooms of our building. That room is now known as the Sign Language Unit. Haig, his peers, and staff head into this room daily to practice their skills. Expanding upon the posters, they have begun using games and songs, which have proven to be very intriguing, making for a successful experience.

“What was once a fear of the unknown [sign language] has now been dissolved,” mentions Lori-Ann. “Even though many have known Haig for a while now, they feel they’ve gained a new friend just being able to understand him and converse more.”

This new opportunity has created much excitement, not just between participants but with staff as well. Everyone is thrilled to learn a new language. Haig is delighted and feels he has gained many new friends. “It’s very emotional to witness because it’s an intelligence everyone has just been absorbing so well and with such energy. Haig has a whole new presence about him, with smiles and happiness,” Lori-Ann told us.

From back left to right, Haig, Douglas, Zak and Kevin (front left) practice ASL together.

As a society that relies heavily on verbal communication, you can only imagine the daily obstacles people communicating through sign language face. Previously, Haig and few others were receiving one-to-one lessons, but now with everyone learning it, it’s opened up a new world for them. Teaching this skill to everyone has shown us that it’s not just a matter of Haig being able to express himself, but others understanding him and responding.

Seeing how this has strengthened relationships and confidence, we hope to continue growing this service with time. Lori-Ann and Jenny will introduce technology, including tablets (funded by Comcast NBCUniversal) equipped with Proloquo2Go, a symbol-based app that allows users to expand how they express themselves. “It’s another piece we aren’t familiar with, but we’re ready to learn it and watch them grow,” says Lori-Ann.

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Clients and staff practicing sign language