Sign Language as a Survival Skill, by B.R.

When I see and read all manner of survival books, magazines, online articles, I’ve noticed a major issue important to me that is never talked about at all, for the most part. What is this issue? In any survival situation how do the healthy, hale members of any society or culture communicate treat and work with our handicapped people/family members? For this article, I will concentrate on the deaf/hard-of-hearing citizens of our own country.

As a being profoundly deaf man since the age of four, I have experienced numerous good and bad situations throughout my life. Sometimes the situations were truly laughingly funny, other times would be really disgustingly bigoted or idiotic. Historically speaking, every culture that has arisen on the average does not look upon its handicapped members with beneficial eyes due to the perception that such people are less capable of work, of thinking, need more help or time to teach them that could be used to better effort elsewhere.

Since the 1880s, American society in general is one that has consistently on the average looked at and treated deaf people as having little to contribute to society at large. Why is that? Communication is the reason, our entire world is based upon, every tool and technology created came about because humans by sound, our voices, the words we pronounce as we speak. We speak what we hear, it takes very little time to say papa correctly when a baby hears its parents or adults gently correct the child’s pronouncing the word. As we grow up, we are constantly learning the proper rules of grammar and speech (word) pronunciation.

What about the deaf or the hard-of-hearing people? When anyone loses the ability to hear the spoken words, how can they say words correctly, learn the correct rules of English grammar when they simply cannot hear the voiced sounds. Do you try to force them to speak (orally) so that they can fit into a society dependent upon sound or would you be willing to learn another language that truly benefits them and adds another important skill to your list of abilities important to surviving? It has been true for a very long time that when hearing members of our society hear deaf/hard-of-hearing people unable to correctly say words spoken to them, they are then seen as less capable, less smart, less dependable, it is seen as so much easier to ignore them, to not hire them, their capabilities and skills in favor of people who can hear and understand the spoken sounds of speech.

In general, the deaf population of this country can be broadly divided into two groups, those who are truly deaf and those who are truly hard-of-hearing. For the most part people who are hard-of-hearing have usually lost their hearing later in life from various causes, they almost always retain their ability to understand spoken speech as well as being able to speak well themselves. They might speak at a higher pitch/tone of voice but still easily understandable. Hence such people will have less trouble living and working in a society dependent on sound as a mode of communication.

This article will focus on the other group, namely those individuals who test in the profound or severe hearing loss range of the hearing spectrum. Such people may either be born with or lose their hearing ability when very young, of course even adults can lose their hearing totally later in life (think soldiers enduring artillery fire or people exposed to long-term loud noises). The very inability to hear spoken word sounds means that when they’re taught grammar they will speak with a pronounced accent, in an unusual, squeaky, or high-pitched voices that make them appear weird, funny-sounding, in short a possible problem that ordinary people either will make fun of or ignore so as to not have to be faced dealing with.

ASL is Practical

So, what is the solution? Use sign language. On the surface, this appears to be just one extra problem for any group of people using voice communication, be they survivalists, family group, what-not gathering of people. Sign language in various forms has been around for thousands of years, from the ancient Egyptians to the Romans to the Renaissance period up to today’s world. Oftentimes signs could be and was mixed in with spoken speech to maximize understanding between two individuals, tribes, nations, etc. The Indian tribes of northern America are a case in point. True sign language has evolved over time from one area to another to the point where they have actually become true languages, each with their rules of grammar, the same as spoken languages have their own rules of grammar as well.

For example, American Sign Language or ASL for short, had its beginnings in Renaissance Spain, with the language knowledge brought then to Paris, France, which contained a sizable population of deaf/hard-of-hearing people speaking their own local French signs which was then mixed together with the Spanish signs and then brought to America in the 18th century where the signs were further modified with local American signs, all the while being codified with grammar rules from long-term practice and usage. Many language scientists, audiologists and deaf educators for a long period refused to accept that American signs was an actual language until serious scholarly research in the 1960s put that question to rest.

Since that time acceptance of the deaf and sign language has increased, many parents like to teach signs to their babies and toddlers but will still resist teaching to their older children as they grow up. It is a myth that sign language will hinder spoken speech. There are still many people and medical personnel who perpetrate such obsolete thinking in favor of oral (speech) training only. Today American Sign Language (ASL) is considered to be a true, complete language, with its own syntax and grammar rules. Consider this fact, today many people are bilingual, I myself, a totally deaf person can speak three languages: English (good), ASL (good), Spanish (fair).

Everyday Use

There are many other good reasons knowing and using sign language is useful in both everyday and survival situations. Everyday situations are just that, being able to communicate with a deaf individual on any number of subjects, work, sports, hobbies, etc. Now for survival situations, let’s consider the most obvious possibility, a grid down, immediate, short, or long-term situation. The fires now raging in the western states is an example of an immediate situation, many people have said that the noise of exploding flames burning houses, natural and gas fuel tanks (gas stations), and cars and trucks going up in major, noisy exploding booms. And then there’s the thick smoke, so thick that people could barely see their hands a few feet in front of them. If a person can barely make out what’s being spoken and seen, would knowing signs as a backup method to voiced speech be useful? Yes, it would!

And there is more. Any survival group, homesteaders, or urban dwellers, in the country or urban areas at the very least should know and practice sign language, using primarily simple, basic signs. Notice I say basic signs, I am not referring to the alphabet letter signs although that is useful too, but to the basic single or occasionally, double hand signs. More advanced signs can always be learned later as a communication tool with the deaf. In any defensive situation, oftentimes the sound of group members voices can give any invading gang or individuals the specific tactical location of your people, increasing the danger to them while compromising the defense of your position, compound, or homestead, The truth of the old adage, “The first people to move after speaking out are usually the first to die.” is quite clear.

It is a wise man or woman that tries to prepare themselves, their families or groups to learn many different skills to survive. There will be many different situations where some members may have medical, speech, audiological, or autistic problems, sometimes before the emergency situation arises as well as after a given survival situation when casualties may occur. Having the knowledge of ASL would ease the communication burden between the healthy members of a group or family and the afflicted members, particularly when voice is not advisable or possible.

Tactically Speaking

It is important to note that tactical use of signs is a very important subject taught and practiced by both military troops and police tactical (SWAT) teams worldwide. To a lesser extent, dangerous gangs and small groups out to steal or cause trouble may use signs (Mexican cartels or Antifa members come to mind), these signs oftentimes are specific and localized homemade signs, not the more organized types as used by the military or police. ASL will give you more signs to use in a larger number of situations than tactical signs do, hence increasing your ability to function communication-wise across a larger number of situations, it can be adapted to tactical survival sign use in addition to everyday talk.

Whenever a group or family accepts or has a deaf individual or individuals, it is important to understand how deaf people perform work assigned to them often is done in ways that are safer for them but may seem slow or not done using methods a hearing individual may be accustomed to. For example, be aware that many deaf people will often have balance problems due to the fact that the human sense of body balance is located in the ear, the one part that is not working for them. For example, if you ask a deaf individual to climb up a wall using a ladder or a tree to pick cherries be prepared to accept that they may refuse or be very slow but careful going up, they know their capability better than you do.

Never think that the deaf cannot do normal everyday activities. There are deaf lawyers, farmers, engineers, postal workers, etc. Would you say or agree that anyone with an artificial leg or arm cannot do normal activities? They may conduct their work, social activities, family life, or survival activities in ways that may be different, safer, or slower. In summary, sign language is the best survival option from many directions, from the tactical defensive and offensive angles to the simple ability to communicate with deaf/mute, autistic handicapped people. If a particular deaf individual, group, or family offers a particular skill to a survival group that the group does not have, professional or otherwise, it would be valuable skill to know and speak sign language in order to increase the survivability of your group or yourself.

 




21 Comments

  1. Excellent article. I’ve known the ASL alphabet since I was very young. My mother understood the the benefits of learning different abilities than the average persons in case one was thrust into a situation that necessitated it. Such as reading about Joni Erickson Tada and learning how to pick things up with your toes should you ever lose the function of your upper extremities. People are still shocked at the dexterity of my toes. I would like to develop my knowledge of ASL beyond the alphabet, and have in a small amount, but not to the point of any communicative fluency. I’ll take your advice as a challenge to devote some time and effort to this. Thanks for the article

  2. My family and I were all in an ASL class before the COVID-19 hoopla & it was great. We look forward to getting back to it. You are right on all the accounts for learning this language. Our family has many hearing impaired members. And misunderstandings in verbally communicating with them is a serious issue. Even worse, I believe, is their tendency to withdraw from others in embarrassment. God makes us strong in our weakness and always provides a way and ASL is a great one. Thank you BR

  3. Good article! Ive also read accounts of home invasions where a family member was deaf and the victims would communicate with each other using the asl alphabet and the intruders didnt know

  4. Thank you, BR! This was an exceptional article combining the story of your personal experience with practical advice and guidance for all. Also a follow up question… For people interested in learning ASL (and specifically in an at-home environment given pandemic conditions), what are the best resources or teaching tools or educational programs?

    1. I have the same question as Telesilla of A. Can B.R. or anyone point us to a resource for learning ASL on a beginner level? Preferably something someone could learn at home alone or with a few others.

      1. One resource that is very helpful (although geared toward children) is a public television series called “Signing Time”. It was on our local public television station for a while, but unfortunately is not any longer. We have tried to locate dvd sets because our children were learning ASL from it, but the dvds can be quite expensive. It is very effective teaching though. I wish we could have continued it.

      2. Chris,

        Greetings and thank you for your kind comments. Here are the primary
        sites for information on learning sign language provided below.

        1) Gallaudet University
        Laurent Clerc National Deaf Educational Center
        (Info to Go) email: infotogo@gallaudet.edu

        2) Harris Communications (Excellent catalog of books/videos and
        assistive devices on sign language)
        Voice 800-825-6758 or VP 952-388-2152
        Email: info@harriscomm.com
        Between 8 AM to 5:30 AM (Mon-Fri) Central Time

        3) National Association of the Deaf
        nad org/resources/american sign-language/learning sign language

    2. Telesilla,

      Greetings and thank you for your kind commendations. Below are listed the best primary sites for finding excellent information about learning to educate oneself in ASL, as an individual or in a group or as a family.

      1) Gallaudet University,
      Laurent Clerc National Deaf Educational Center
      (Info to Go) email: infotogo@gallaudet.edu

      2) Harris Communications (Excellent catalog on videos, books. telephone and
      hearing assistive devices.)
      Voice 800-825-6858 VP 952-388-2152
      Email: info@harriscomm.com between 8 AM to 5:30 PM (Mon-Fri) Central Time

      3) National Association of the Deaf
      Information on every physical and online sites advocating, teaching, or learning
      ASL.
      nad org/resources/american sign-language/learning sign language

  5. I work in corrections and will confirm your statement that gangs use ASL as a covert means of communication. In our institution many Latin Kings are quite fluent and nearly none of the staff is.

  6. Great article ! I have problems hearing base tones, aparently working around electric motors for days and months on end causes a thickening of the eardrum so certain frequencies can’t be heard as well. I get most of what is being said, but unconsiously learned to read lips. It can be un-nerving to speakers because I focus on them and they think I’m starring. Now in this upside down world of masking I can barely make out what people are saying. Adding sign to education at an early age would benifit our society as a whole.

  7. Hi B.R., lots of good points in this article, thanks for bring up this topic and the well-organized presentation.

    “There are many other good reasons knowing and using sign language is useful in both everyday and survival situations…. Any survival group, homesteaders, or urban dwellers, in the country or urban areas at the very least should know and practice sign language, using primarily simple, basic signs. Notice I say basic signs, I am not referring to the alphabet letter signs although that is useful too…”

    I couldn’t agree with this statement more. Most people think ASL is just for communication with deaf people but that’s not the case, I wish every American would learn it. I never got really fluent at it but as the author said, at the very least people should learn the most basic signs. The only thing I disagree on is the alphabet letter signs, since those are so easily learned and takes only 30 minutes and some practice and you can say ANY word that way, even if you don’t know the actual ASL sign for it. With some practice, you can get pretty fluent in a short amount of time.

    We all use hand signals: motioning with our hands to say “come here,” or finger to lips to say “shhh, quiet”, hand to ear to indicate I didn’t hear you, the flagman pumping his hand to say slow down, hang ten, twirling our finger around our ear to say “crazy,” hitting our forehead with the butt of our hand to say, “I could have had a V-8!” etc. Learning the most basic signs as B.R. points out is a great idea and not that difficult. Many of them are based in mnemonics so once someone shows them to you one time, you’ll never forget it. To say “my” you put your hand over your chest like you’re saying the pledge of allegiance. To say “name”, you extend your index and middle fingers on both hands in front of you and make an “X”. Easy to remember because it originates from when illiterate people signed their name with an “X”. Put both hands out in front of you making fists and then make an “X” with your wrists, indicating handcuffs, and that means “job”, one of my favorites! Who hasn’t felt imprisoned by their job at once time or another? And one more. You make the letter “T” by making a fist, with your thumb between your index and middle finger. Thumb starts with “T” so that’s easy to remember. My favorite is bathroom, or Toilet, which you make a “T” sign, then wiggle it back and forth in a hurry like you do when you’re dancing around when your bladder is about to blow a gasket and you need to get to the toilet right now. A good portion of the ASL signs are created just on this concept of mnemonics, thought that’s not the exact word I’m looking for. Which brings up the word “forget.” Swipe your hand across your forehead as if you are removing contents from your brain. Bored is a funny one: put your index finger to the side of your nose, then remove it quickly while twisting it. You’re bored so you’re picking your nose. lol.

    Like I said, we already use hand signals so why not learn a few more of the basic, easy ones as B.R. mentioned? How many times are we in a crowd trying to yell something to our spouse, kids, etc. I was at a crowded auction a while ago and needed to hit the loo so I did the toilet signal to the person I was with who was 30 feet away. No need to go over to them, and then back the way you came so you can go to the bathroom. Your spouse is at the far end of the Costco aisle and you want to say, “Grab JWR’s new book since you’re right there.” ASL signs get the job done quickly. And ya gotta love that scene in The River Wild where the dad saves the day by writing some ASL signs on a log for his family to see so they know how to foil the bad guys.

    In a TEOTWAWKI situation, as B.R. mentioned, shouting back and forth is a good way to get killed. ASL to the rescue. ASL classes are fun to take as a couple and then you have someone to practice with as well. And best of all, if you encounter a deaf person, and all you can say is, “My name is John,” they’ll be grateful that you took the time to learn that much and you’ll have a new friend. I can understand when they tell me their name, but when they try to get more complicated, I put my thumb and index finger a quarter inch apart, then put it over my head and twist it back and forth: “pea brain.” Then they laugh and are patient with me as I spell things out with ASL letters.

    Find some ASL classes (many are free as a community service) or books, or just go online and learn the basics. It’s fun and new skills never hurt anyone.

    Here are some online resources:

    https://www.lifewire.com/free-sign-language-classes-online-1357048

  8. Thanks for this great article, BR! I agree, ASL is a very valuable resource that more of us should learn. Our son, daughter, and daughter-in-law are all pretty fluent in ASL because of their occupations. Years ago we all took a course through the local community college to refine our skills. I would think there are online resources for learning ASL as well. If anyone knows of any, please share.

  9. Wow! I really appreciated this article as I am profoundly deaf. I was born with a substantial hearing loss but no longer can hide my handicap. I have never heard whispers but pretended I did as a little girl out of embarrassment. This led to a lot of ridicule and self isolation. I have found that most people would rather put someone else down than try to understand the problem, it’s easier. I find it difficult to trust people, I prefer my dog over trying to get along with others. My biggest gripe is deafness is associated with being dumb, hence the term, deaf and dumb. I never learned sign language I read lips, however, wearing masks due to covid-19 has made simple tasks like going to the store alone much harder. The cashiers will talk to me with their masks on and even with two hearing aids I can no longer understand what they are saying. I put off dealing with people even more and find myself isolating due to not wanting to appear stupid. When you deal with people who are hearing impaired please be mindful that it takes them longer to understand your words. Realize that we are watching your eyes your body language and the sounds we hear to understand you. If we only have the sounds to rely on, we will most likely get it wrong. Then you usually laugh at us, sometimes not meaning to insult us, but it does. Most of us try very hard to fit in, needing companionship just as much as hearing people do. The older I get, the less I try to fit in, it’s just easier! Sincerely, Kathy

    1. I am beginning to understand some of your concerns, as someone who has lost a bit over 50% of hearing due to work related stress and not using hearing protection at the range in my younger days, etc.. Hindsight! Am Very judicious about taking care of whats left now. Also considering ASL as a means of backup, since it is more socially acceptable then the universal ‘one finger salute’ that even the Blind & dumb democrats can understand…..and I have to REALLY restrain myself from using that particular salute more each day!

  10. BR, Loved your article; so many excellent points.

    Twenty-nine years ago my family of six learned sign language to help our youngest toddler communicate before he could say words. His hearing was great but he had dysphasia. The sounds he spoke were an unintelligible mess. The frustration of not being able to communicate any of his needs was psychologically forming him into an angry little monster. The specialist at the Children’s Hospital said he needed to learn sign language immediately.

    Boy, was sign language a game changer for good! His whole personality relaxed and improved. I took him to the Children’s Hospital for three years for therapy, as they helped him learn to speak. By age 5 1/2, not only could he speak normally, he would interpret for other children who had difficulties.

    Your article has encouraged me. Thank you. Blessings on your week, Krissy

  11. Related to this issue is code words for your family. Have a code word for possible danger that your family will immediately recognize and respond by paying attention and following your lead. Practice using it and what the responses should be. Things like poker face/reaction so that it isn’t obvious that you and your family are suddenly alert. Focus on the adult and their actions and non-verbal directions. Pick a code word that could be used in a sentence that can be used to point to both the kind of crisis but to the action to take. It’s not sign language but much easier to learn and to use.

    1. Thanks for the reminder. We will need to choose one for this scenario, too. We have already chosen a “family code phrase” and taught it to the littles. They know that if anyone outside the family (parents, grandparents, godparents) asks the child to go with them, they are to ask the individual to give the family code. If the person can’t give it — they were NOT sent by a parent to get them, and do NOT go with the person! Run away!

  12. Great article, and I have seen first hand the problems you pointed out. My wife is fluent in ASL and worked with the deaf for many years. St. Funogas is correct the deaf are very appreciative of any effort on your part to learn sign language. Of course the irony for my wife is after many years of marriage her husband is increasingly hard of hearing. Too many years of jet engines and gunfire in my youth.

  13. How very timely, BR, your article is to me. I learned ASL while in nursing school and found it invaluable in being the only resource person in my small hospital who could communicate with deaf patients. What a comfort for them and what a wonderful opportunity for me to get to know some of them and their friends! I found their humor to be unsurpassed in ‘kind fun ‘- like so many of our old time comedians. I remember watching a group of friends gathered around their friend who was a patient and all of them “talking” and laughing so joyously it still warms my heart to remember it.

    I have been thinking just recently that I want to brush up on my ASL again and your article has spurred me to actively seek out a resource to do just that. Thank you, again!

  14. BR

    For all those people who commented, thank you for the positive words. Here are the primary sites where information on learning more about ASL can be found.

    1) Gallaudet University
    Laurent Clerc National Deaf Educational Center
    (Info to Go) email: infotogo@ gallaudet.edu

    2) Harris Communications
    Excellent website and catalog with information on ASL books, videos, and
    assistive devices.
    Voice 800-825-6758 or VP 952-388-2152
    Email: info@harriscomm.com
    Between 8AM to 5:30 PM Central Time

    3) National Association of the Deaf
    nad org/resources/american sign-language/learning sign language

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