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A Sign of Understanding

Good Shepherd Community resident, Betty Shirm, recently began teaching sign language classes for anyone interested in learning the skill.

“By teaching sign language to others, I am providing an opportunity to learn sign language before a person goes deaf and it also affords them the opportunity to communicate with deaf friends,” she said. One doesn’t have to have long conversations, but simply knowing how to say, “good morning,” or “how are you?” is a kindness to someone struggling with hearing, she contends.

Betty’s typical class will begin with reviewing fingerspelling, then working on Universal Signing Language, followed by combining the two.

In fingerspelling, individual alphabet letters are formed using the fingers and hand. These can then be put together to spell out words. The disadvantage to fingerspelling is it is very slow, according to Betty.

In Universal Signing Language, “motions are used to depict a meaning.” The two can be combined, so words can be spelled out when necessary and the motions are used as well.

Betty learned sign language when she was working as a music therapist. She had a girl come to her who could neither talk nor hear. She wanted to be able to help her through music, but she wasn’t sure how to communicate. She used her “ingenuity” with the girl as best she could by drawing a square with her fingers, and then wiggling her fingers like they were dancing. In this way she was able to get across to the girl that she was asking if she’d like to learn how to square dance. The enthusiastic answer was “Yes!”

After two months of lessons, three times weekly, from a speech pathologist, Betty was able to begin communicating more adeptly with the girl. She also got some of the carpenters at the facility to build a stage that would vibrate with the music, and the girl was able to successfully use the vibrations of the music to dance.

Betty then formed a square dancing troupe, which traveled around the state performing. The girls wore skirts made of red bandana material with stiff petticoats and the boys wore Levis with starched white shirts and red bandanas. They even had a station wagon with “Betty Shirm Square Dancers” painted on it. All because Betty wanted to communicate with a child who couldn’t hear.

It is Betty’s hope that by offering this class, she is providing a service to her community and she likes that she is able to fill her time by volunteering at The Cove.

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