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They Speak Through Sign

Learn this language, and you can

break through the silence

Personal enrichment. Career Advancement. Family concerns. Their reasons may differ but a love of learning is shared by students in Russell Kane’s class in Level One Adult American Sign Language (ASL) at Mill Neck Services in Hicksville.

One couple registered for the class because their six-month-old granddaughter is deaf. Another student is the daughter of parents who are deaf. One woman is a special education teacher and another wants to make a career in the field of deaf education.

“It’s a great class,” Kane said in sign, with Mill Neck Services interpreter Ilissa Rubinberg as animated in her speaking voice as Kane is with his hands and facial expressions. The winter session, meeting Monday nights at the Mill Neck Services Day Habilitation and Interpreter Services building at 501 South Broadway, concludes March 25th.  But various courses are offered throughout the year (www.millneck.org).

In an interview before a recent class, Kane proudly pointed out that ASL is so popular many New York school districts offer it as a foreign language and provide credit toward a Regents diploma. Mill Neck Services says it’s the third most popular language studied in the U.S.

As the class arrived, Kane neatly printed the night’s agenda with a blue marker on the white board. When the nine women and two men assembled around a long wooden table in the warm classroom with bright yellow walls, he took attendance by signing the student’s last names.  They responded by raising their hands.

Formalities out of the way, it was on to learning. On this night, with Executive Director Loretta Murray in attendance at the head of the table, the first item on the agenda was the biggest event in deaf culture. Kane pointed to his picture in the book The Week the World Heard Gallaudet that details the student uprising at the world-renowned university in the late ‘80’s, resulting in the ouster of a newly named hearing president for one who was deaf.

“Deaf schools are like a holy place to our community,” Kane said as he printed other school’s names on the board before teaching how to sign them: Lexington (Queens), Cleary (Nesconset), Mill Neck Services, Fanwood (White Plains), St. Joseph’s (Bronx), St. Francis de Sales (Brooklyn) and P.S. 47 (Manhattan).

Sign language is not confined to use of the hands. Before class Kane said, “70 percent of American Sign Language is facial expression,” and his students seldom took their eyes off his expressive presence. “Hicksville is perfect for our needs,” said Coordinator of Habilitation Services Matthew Birn. “We have 35 folks who come in on a daily basis.”  All are deaf and developmentally disabled.

Students in the day program range in age from 21 to 69. The 69-year-old woman, said Birn, “has more energy than all of us put together.” Some days, students go out for lunch, and Birn recalled one student’s joy when “he found a fast food worker who knew sign.”

The program is “community integration at its best,” according to Christine Oddo, associate director of Mill Neck Services. It includes volunteering for agencies such as Meals on Wheels or Last Hope Animal Rescue. Volunteering “builds self worth,” observed Executive Director Loretta Murray.

Asked that day what it takes for a professional to succeed in her field, Murray, who is deaf, said, “I think the most important thing is belief—belief that the clients can do anything and that they have the right.” With sorrow in her voice, Murray added, “Funding is always in a state of flux.” Several weeks later at the ASL class, she shared her concern with the students when she told them Governor Andrew Cuomo is proposing a six percent cut for agencies such as Mill Neck, and the impact would be severe.  

ASL teacher Russell Kane is the author of two books, Fighting the Long Sorrow and the soon-to-be-released Signs of Rebirth—available on Amazon, and is American Sign Language Instructor at Nassau Community College. He received his undergraduate degree in deaf education at Hofstra and his Masters at Gallaudet in Washington, D.C.