Unlearning: How I'm Adjusting to Being the Only Non-ASL Signer in the Room

Banner of Caucasian hands signing interpreter in American Sign Language


Everyone has been in a zoom room or video chat in the last year. That's not a first any longer. We're getting "used to" meeting and working and communicating remotely, with video chats and texts to fuel our coffee machine chatter and colleague gossip.

But one workplace video chat the other day gave me a massive gift of realization. I was the only person, out of five, in a video call who didn't know sign language. I was the only hearing, non-signer in the room. There were other hearing people, and there were Deaf ASL users. But my small Venn diagram space of "hearing, but not able to communicate with everyone here" shone out like a beacon. I have been in situations where I was the only "English-language-speaking-only" person, and I've felt uncomfortable that I was inconveniencing someone for having to speak in English to me (hello, Paris) but this moment was very different.

There's a lot of talk about recognizing your privilege lately, in the world at large. Recognizing that things haven't been "given to you" as part of a community is difficult to see because you don't recognize your own normal. It's... normal. But that moment in that video chat, for me, as a communicator and writer, gave me an ice bath in my stomach.

Here is your privilege.

As I watched my four colleagues communicating and then pausing to let me in on what was being said, the written-in-ink part of my understanding of who I am as a marketing professional and communicator became erasable. It pushed me out of my comfort zone into a new room. At ASLI, and New Language, I'm tasked with framing the narrative around our work and services with potential and current clients. But I can't use the same language for everyone; there's no one greatest common denominator.  I've found myself second guessing my love of speaking (see, there's a hearing person's term) in metaphor after my VP of interpreting operations pointed out those "universal" metaphors aren't actually all that universal.

Sure, I work for a company that offers translation and interpretation services. But with luck, if I do my job right, everyone in every company will have the opportunity to get their own ice bath, when they realize they're not easily understood.

At the beginning of that video call, my colleague Lindsay pushed me to learn the sign for "good morning." I became worried about hand placement. Is this hand in front of here, or there? It was like wondering how bad my French accent was (it's bad). My interpreter Quinn told me she said "that's an easy one, Kiley. Good morning."

Good morning, indeed.



Kiley Thompson is the Director of Marketing for New Language, overseeing the message and messaging for TB Alliance and ASLI. Follow along with her as she learns ASL in the coming months.




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