When I decided to write a story about a deaf boy who discovers a dead body (The Right Kind of Fool–Nov. 3, 2020), I knew I wanted him to know sign language. But how would a 13-year-old boy in West Virginia learn sign language? Just a little research solved the problem!
The creation of the WV Schools for the Deaf and Blind was approved by the state legislature on March 3, 1870 (150 years ago this week!). The town of Romney in the eastern panhandle offered a building and 20 acres of land. In September of 1870, the schools were opened with 25 deaf and 5 blind students. Today, the school includes 16 buildings on 79 acres and is approaching 5,000 children served.
So often my home state has a reputation for being backwards or behind-the-times, but here we have an example of West Virginians making it a priority to educate deaf and blind children a century and a half ago. I was delighted to know I could send Loyal off to school, confident that he would be able to communicate effectively.
Of course, it’s still a challenge to write a character who can’t hear. He reads lips, but just a little more research there taught me lip reading is neither easy nor foolproof. And while Loyal teaches those around him a handful of signs (his mother is skilled), oh, the roadblocks when you effectively speak a different language!
I learned the rudiments of sign language in second grade thanks to Mrs. Lashley who taught us the alphabet and to sign “Do You Hear What I Hear,” for the Christmas pageant. I still can’t listen to that song without wanting to do the sign for “shepherd boy!”
Do you know any sign language?