Interpreting Service for the Deaf Offers Community-Minded Sign Language Classes

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Interpreting service for the deaf offers community-minded sign language classes

Eight students, including a pre-med student, nursing student and the mother of a deaf child, were all sitting in a small classroom recently at the West Knoxville office of Visual Communication Interpreting Inc. mimicking the hand signals being demonstrated to them by a certified sign language interpreter.

The students had already worked through the American Sign Language alphabet as well as a long run of numbers as the teacher began demonstrating basic conversational sign language with hand signals that convey whole words and concepts, telling the students vocally as she went through what they mean. All the while, the teacher displayed clearly on her face the appropriate emotion associated with each communication.

Communicating with sign language looks like a lively combination of hand exercises, conversation and theater. Students in VCI's beginner course learn "fingerspelling" and numbers; basic introduction and conversation vocabulary and also an intro to deaf culture. Classes are designed for people who have little or no previous experience with sign language. The Beginner II class addresses a more expansive vocabulary and a more nuanced understanding of deaf culture. Intermediate and advanced classes are also available.

VCI is the brainchild of certified sign language interpreter and company CEO Ruann Wood, who founded the business six years ago. Wood has been interpreting for eight years and has a bachelor's degree in sign language interpretation from Tennessee Temple University. Though interpreting is VCI's primary service, Wood began offering sign language classes as a community-minded alternative to the time- consuming formal instruction required at a degree-granting school.

"At a community class, people feel like they have some flexibility. Plus we can cater the class to the people who are in the class instead of having to use a mandated curriculum," said Wood. "I teach like I like to learn. I want to learn hands-on. I want to be able to ask questions, and I want to be able to make mistakes and not be judged. The way I teach it is very fun and free. It's conversational, very relaxed, in a casual environment to learn a really cool language."

Part of the advantage of not being tied to a textbook is being able to teach real-world sign language.

"She was teaching us the way that deaf people actually communicate rather than teaching us standard textbook sign language, which is often very different," said student Jessica DiFranco, a librarian who took the course with her husband David, a registered nurse. …