WINTER GARDEN If you’ve ever wanted to learn American Sign Language — or get better at it — the Winter Garden deaf-chat group could be a good starting point.
Started by Winter Garden resident Ryan Vander Weide, the group meets once per month outside Axum Coffee on Plant Street. The chats are always voice-off, and attendees range from those who are new to sign language to people who have learned it and want to use it more often.
“I enjoy chatting with people of the deaf (community) and helping the hearing people wanting to learn American Sign Language to communicate with the deaf community,” Vander Weide said. “The idea of publicly hosting a deaf chat has been in my mind for several years. I hosted a deaf chat in Clermont for several months back in 2013, but it never flourished.”
Vander Weide added that people often attend ASL classes to learn the language, but never use it outside of the classes. The goal of the deaf chats is to increase awareness and understanding of ASL by using it in a social environment.
While helping out with an ASL class at Mosaic Church, Vander Weide met people who were interested in participating in a deaf chat. So he set it up and posted the information on the Winter Garden Community Facebook page to gauge interest.
“The responses and likes were great,” he said. “I even had the person that created the Winter Garden Community page on Facebook inform me to post the event on the page when it happens. … I never thought I would get this type of responses.”
The first event was held in October, and about 14 people from various places — and with various ASL proficiency levels — attended. Participants ranged from high-school students to church members and people who saw the post on Facebook.
Since then, Vander Weide has facilitated another chat in November and will host the last one of the year on Dec. 21. From those who are just learning ASL to those fluent in it, he encourages anyone interested to come by and chat with others.
For each two-hour chat, no one is allowed to use their voice or anything except for sign language. If people don’t understand the signs they see, they let others know that they didn’t understand. Then, the signer repeats the signs, does the sign slower or finger spells it.
Vander Weide hopes those coming to the event will gain a better understanding of the language, increase their vocabulary and develop skills to communicate with the deaf community.
“People involved are awesome and willing to help each other out when something is missed,” he said. “To make this event worth it, the event must use the same techniques as other people of the deaf use — voice-off, ask proper questions to help the listener understand what the people of the deaf are saying, and understand facial and body language. Facial and body language are also important to make American Sign Language effective.”