Windermere High ASL teacher Kumar Singh hopes to connect the deaf and hearing communities through ASL Slam Orlando.
Kumar Singh’s students know that as soon as they walk into the American Sign Language classroom, it’s voices off.
After all, the second-year Windermere High teacher said he wants his students to experience what it’s like to have total visual communication.
“I want them to know the five parameters of ASL, how to use them, different classifiers, things that all make up the language,” he said. “That allows students to get more exposure to it.”
But Singh isn’t only an ASL teacher at Windermere High — he also is the founder of ASL Slam Orlando.
Singh, 36, was born deaf and attended a deaf school growing up. It’s where he picked up ASL, which is his first language. He graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology with a bachelor’s degree in hospitality and service management before moving back to Florida.
But for him, finding a fulfilling job in the hospitality industry wasn’t an easy feat. It was during his time as a deaf community relations specialist at a deaf school that he realized he wanted to bring to others an awareness of the deaf community and the corresponding communication barrier.
“I looked at ASL classes, which are growing in kindergarten through 12th grade, and thought, ‘That’s really cool to be able to teach kids sign language,” he said. “I wanted to help expose them more to ASL and to help the deaf community grow and have better communication with people. That helps hearing people to be aware of ASL, as well, and deaf culture itself — knowing it’s not just a language, there’s a whole culture behind it. A lot of hearing people think it’s just that the deaf can’t hear, but it’s a whole system of issues that deaf people face.”
He began ASL tutoring and teaching people who didn’t know sign language. It was during his time tutoring at Valencia College that he decided he wanted to get his master’s degree to teach ASL at the college level. It’s what spurred him to begin teaching ASL at Windermere High, which helps by giving him more instructional experience.
“In the beginning it was really challenging for me,” he said. “I was overwhelmed — it was my first year teaching and I was taking two graduate classes each semester. I picked it up as we went along and I had a good support system with the other ASL teacher here, as well.”
With the support of Orange County Public Schools and the mentorship of other deaf teachers, Singh has gotten the hang of teaching ASL — even to hearing students who are just beginning to learn sign language. Windermere High also has a full-time staff interpreter to help out.
ASL SLAM ORLANDO
Aside from being a graduate student and ASL teacher at Windermere High, Singh also plays another important role as the host of ASL Slam Orlando.
Poet Douglas Ridloff is the host behind the ASL Slam brand as a whole. ASL Slam was born in New York City, but there now are monthly ASL Slam events in Boston, Chicago and Orlando, as well.
The stage is offered to audience members for visual performances using only sign language. This includes raps, storytelling and poetry. And it was in New York that Singh first was introduced to ASL Slam.
“I saw it and really loved it — there was the deaf community, interpreters and students who got together,” he said. “They had a safe space for them to get together and use ASL. They can do poetry, they can tell stories, anything they want to — and people enjoyed watching it. I loved watching it, I thought it was a lot of fun.”
Singh knew he wanted to bring ASL Slam to Orlando, and Ridloff supported him in that endeavor. ASL Slam Orlando was born in 2017.
“There has been a huge benefit for the deaf community — they’re able to express themselves, play with the language, show their skills and share their experiences through ASL,” he said. “It’s good experience for ASL students to come, too, because they watch and see how it’s so different from English and how English and ASL poems really differ. That then leads to the Orlando area being more aware of ASL and giving it more exposure.”
ASL Slam typically is held monthly at The Venue in Orlando’s Ivanhoe Village neighborhood, but Singh is having to look for a new space to host the event due to The Venue’s closing Sept. 12. Singh hopes to be able to find a new venue in time to be able to host ASL Slam again in November.
“If you’ve never experienced ASL Slam before, you should go,” he said. “It’s a totally quiet place, there’s really not much sound, it’s a very visual open place, and it’s awesome to watch the performances,” he said. “You’ll be able to interact with the deaf community, so that’s really important, and you’ll see the different signs and how everyone is voice off. It’s a good educational environment and good for people who don’t know how to sign, I think.”
Singh’s overarching hope for ASL Slam Orlando is to be able to bring the deaf and hearing communities together.
“I want them to see, from a deaf person’s perspective, how they are affected in the hearing community,” Singh said. “It’s kind of hard to explain that to people. Some people feel afraid because they don’t know the language, but you have to start somewhere. I wish I knew what they were thinking and that I could help them feel more comfortable and help their signing improve.
“I want people to come and connect with the language — I don’t want them to feel left out,” he said. “The deaf community is a small but strong and influential community.”