Sign language brings students, community members together at holiday event

Ocean Lakes High School students read a Christmas story to deaf elementary school students using American Sign Language. (Photo courtesy of Virginia Beach Public Schools)
Ocean Lakes High School students read a Christmas story to deaf elementary school students using American Sign Language. (Photo courtesy of Virginia Beach Public Schools)

Students and teachers from Ocean Lakes High School hosted a holiday party Thursday for a group of Virginia Beach elementary school students.

Like any party, this one included food, drink, and lots of conversation, but in this case, most conversations were held using sign language.

Parties like this have taken place once a year for nearly three decades, offering a rare opportunity for deaf elementary school children and Ocean Lakes students enrolled in American Sign Language (ASL) classes to meet and interact with one another, said event organizer Lynn Steinberg.

Steinberg, who has has overseen the ASL program at Ocean Lakes since 2000, invites current and former students to participate in the annual festivities and serve as mentors to the younger generation.

During the event, nearly 25 ASL students and about a dozen deaf individuals from surrounding elementary schools played games, read stories, and took pictures with an ASL Santa.

A deaf student signs with Santa, who visited the ASL event at Ocean Lakes High School. (Mariah Pohl)
A deaf student signs with Santa, who made an appearance at the Ocean Lakes ASL event. (Mariah Pohl)

“It means so much to host an event like this. I grew up deaf and didn’t have any role models,” Steinberg said. “I really struggled with that in school. That’s why I do this. I don’t want to see students in public schools struggle the way I had to.”

According to Steinberg, community support for the deaf has changed a lot over the years.

“Public schools are more accommodating nowadays. ASL is so much more accessible,” she said. “It’s like a 180-degree change from what I had growing up. In my time we weren’t able to use sign language, we had to behave like hearing people.”

Ocean Lakes senior Samantha White has taken ASL for three years and said there are a lot of misconceptions about the deaf community.

“I think people need to realize that it’s not a handicap,” she said. “It teaches you to look at things with a different perspective.”

White, who hopes to become an orthodontist that can provide ASL assistance to deaf patients, said she recently had the opportunity to use her skills outside of the classroom.

“During the [Hurricane Matthew] flooding, I was driving down Lynnhaven road when a lady flagged me down. She was deaf and started writing with a pen and paper that she needed help with directions. I started signing and her face lit up,” she said. “She always has to deal with communication barriers, but she knew I was trying. I really made an impact. She was no longer a stranger, she was almost like a friend.”

Regardless of certain challenges associated with being deaf, it’s not a disability, said Jay Shopshire, a former teacher at Virginia School for the Deaf at Hampton.

Shopshire occasionally substitutes for Lynn Steinberg’s ASL class and attended the event Thursday to share his personal experiences as a deaf individual.

“Deaf children look up to deaf adults,” he said.

In order to bring ASL individuals together, the Hampton Roads deaf community hosts many gatherings throughout the year, including pig roasts and silent dinners, said Shopshire.

“Hearing people think the deaf can’t do many things, but that’s not true. Deaf people can do anything,” he said. “During events like these, hearing people miss so much [of what goes on] because everyone is signing.”

Pohl may be reached at mariah@localvoicemedia.com

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