Learning the shapes of language

Patrick McConahay uses his hands to speak during a recent adult ASL class at Hilltop Elementary School.

ILWACO - Shapes, created by hands to represent words, have existed for centuries. Now, a local man works not only to teach this language, but also enlighten people of the culture that is attached to those who are deaf.

Patrick McConahay has been using American Sign Language (ASL) for many years. Being deaf himself, he has used it as a second language most of his life. After receiving his master's degree in education some years ago, he now teaches ASL through various outlets like Clatsop Community College and Tlohon-Nipts Alternative High School. He has also begun teaching a beginners class for adults at Hilltop Elementary School on Wednesdays from 4 to 6 p.m.

Sign language was created in the sixteenth century by Geronimo Cardano, a physician of Padua, Italy, who proclaimed that deaf people could be taught to understand written combinations of symbols by associating them with the thing they represented. The first book on teaching sign language to deaf people that contained the manual alphabet was published in 1620 by Juan Pablo de Bonet. In 1817 Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet founded the United States first school for deaf people in Hartford, Conn. Soon schools for deaf people began to appear in several states throughout the nation.

At the beginning of a recent ASL class at Hilltop Elementary School, McConahay's humor quickly became evident in his style of teaching. The nine attendants of the class took turns brushing-up on skills learned from the previous week by using photographs of families and using sign language to say the relationship between the people in the pictures. The funny part about it was that the people in the photos were TV families like the Munsters, Andy of Mayberry and the Flintstones.

McConahay, though being born deaf, speaks clearly when talking with his class. He said he learned how to speak while going to public schools, out of necessity. He uses this voice to explain the meaning behind the signs that he teaches in simple terms that are easy to understand.

Another fun activity the group engaged in was having half of the class pretend to be waiters and waitresses and the other half be customers. The only stipulation was that both sides were deaf - the customer side had to order breakfast with sign language and the waiting side had to sign back the order accurately.

"So I want you to order a big breakfast," said McConahay. "Not just coffee and a donut!"

But in this class McConahay isn't just teaching ASL, he is also teaching about deaf culture.

McConahay drew a face on the dry-erase board at the front of the classroom and declared, "See, now this is a happy deaf person, okay?" said McConahay. "Well, he's not deaf yet." His humorous side revealed itself once again as he changed the drawing to include circles with lines through them over the face's ears. "Now he's deaf."

He used the drawing to help illustrate a point that he feels very strongly about - the fact that there are two points of view when someone encounters a deaf person.

One side sees the person as handicapped, a word that McConahay despises.

"Who among you knows where the word handicap comes from?" asked McConahay. "Cap in hand. Beggars on the street with his hand out. That's where it comes from."

He finds this a very negative perception of a person and notes that it is not even a politically correct word anymore. He prefers impediment, a barrier or even disability.

He went on to point out that there is another side to this, a side that sees a deaf person as part of a culture.

"He's just like everybody else. He can't hear, that's all." said McConahay. "He can do anything he wants to. He can have family. He can hold down jobs."

He pointed out that the handicapped perspective can also come from the medical point of view, and said, "If a person has a disability, they have a problem. They're [doctors] obligating by the Hippocratic oath to fix things, and [to them] deafness is something that's got to be fixed."

McConahay said that equal time is spent teaching deaf culture in his ASL classes so that people can gain a better understanding of deaf people and their culture and issues.

"And a sensitivity, I think, towards that group of people," said McConahay.

McConahay has had the opportunity to teach ASL in a variety of situations to a variety of people, including Barabra Roberts while she held the office of Secretary of State of Oregon, prior to her election as governor.

Many of the people attending McConahay's class at Hilltop Elementary School, which is a 10-week course currently in its fourth week, are involved in local schools including Amy Curry, who teaches first grade at Ocean Park Elementary School. Curry is teaching ASL as a second language as part of her class curriculum.

As the class wrapped up another session, McConahay had one more sign to show the class, a "silly sign" as he put it. He moved his right hand past his eyes making a squeezing motion as if he were milking a cow. He explained that this is a sign for pasteurized milk. He broke it down - past-your-eyes-milk. "Get it?" asked McConahay.

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