Breaking down barriers through sign language

By Anne Riker Garlington

Imagine how scary it would be if you went to a doctor’s office and couldn’t communicate your symptoms with your health care provider so you could receive timely and appropriate treatment.

Zulma “Yary” Santiago

For Zulma “Yary” Santiago, M.A., this situation is unfortunately all too common. Santiago, who is Deaf, recently had a serious case of bronchitis and had to make a last-minute medical appointment. The doctor refused to treat her because the practice didn’t have an interpreter available. Santiago was told she had to reschedule and have an interpreter present. She offered to write down her health issues, but the doctor was unwilling to move past their communication barrier.

As an American Sign Language and Deaf Culture instructor in the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions department of speech, language, and hearing sciences, Santiago is teaching UF students, including future health care providers, the value of learning sign language to open up a new world of communication with the Deaf community.

During the first class of the semester, Santiago plays an American Sign Language, or ASL, video featuring the song “Waiting on the World to Change” by John Mayer.

“One thing that I’d like people to know is that we as a community have been waiting on the world to change,” Santiago said. “If you become part of that change, you are opening doors of opportunities for us. You are also opening yourself to a new way of understanding the world, a new language, a new culture.” 

Santiago shares her insights on learning sign language. 

Question: How does learning sign language improve communication with the Deaf community? 

A: Deaf people experience so many communication barriers and stressful situations when it comes to accessing health care. Imagine you’re sick and there is no one in the medical office to help you communicate your symptoms. It is important to keep in mind the diversity of communication needs of Deaf individuals. 

For health care professionals, it is important to make sure you focus on the needs of the person in front of you and ask yourself, ‘How can I make communication accessible?’ 

If you do learn sign language, it’s important to interact and immerse yourself in the Deaf community, that way it will introduce you to not only a second language, but a new culture and rich history of Deaf people. For people in the health field specifically, think of the difficulty of being a Deaf person walking into a health care facility and how you can help make their experience smoother. 

Q: What are some other benefits of learning sign language?

A: American Sign Language is a rich and expressive language that transcends mere communication. Beyond its linguistic value, ASL offers a myriad of perceptual, cognitive and cultural benefits that enrich the lives of both learners and the broader community. These include:

Enhanced perceptual skills. Due to the visual nature of ASL, learning and practicing the language enhances a person’s peripheral vision and reaction times. Signers also develop an improved ability to notice visual cues, leading to increased passive awareness of their surroundings. Additionally, practicing signs contributes to improved fine motor control, offering benefits beyond language acquisition, such as enhanced performance in driving or sports.

Improved cognitive function. Like acquiring any new language, learning ASL stimulates the mind, fostering heightened creativity, improved memory retention and increased mental agility. This cognitive stimulation holds particular significance for developing minds, as a more engaged mind during the learning process contributes to the growth of a stronger and more capable individual.

Better cultural understanding. Learning sign language provides an avenue for individuals to immerse themselves in Deaf culture. This immersion allows them to experience the unique and diverse world of the Deaf community, with its distinctive struggles, strengths and individuals who may otherwise remain unknown. Cultivating an inclusive environment with the Deaf community paves the way for greater societal acceptance and understanding. 

Q: How early can a person learn sign language? 

A: Learning sign language can begin at any time. 

For example, people teach babies sign language to help them communicate before they even learn to speak. Research has shown this may improve babies’ IQ, and they may speak earlier than babies who do not sign. They can code switch from one visual language to one auditory language, which is a lot more difficult than just switching from two auditory languages. 

Q: How important is Deaf representation in the media? 

A: It is important to understand authenticity is essential when it comes to representing the Deaf community in the media. Some of the most well-known figures in the Deaf community include Marlee Matlin, a successful actor, and Derrick Coleman Jr., the first Deaf offensive player in NFL history. Recently, Tasha Stones was the first Deaf baker to appear on the Great British Bake Off. 

Can a hearing person who can sign represent Deaf people well? Not really, because the personal experience is not going to be there. In addition, there are many Deaf actors and performers who have the talent and necessary skills to play the roles authentically. 

Great British Bake Off contestant Tasha Stones discusses how she and her interpreter developed signs for some of the iconic terms used on the show. There are there are more than 130 different sign languages worldwide, Santiago said, and they vary across countries. “We have a one-handed alphabet while British Sign Language has a two-handed alphabet even though our spoken language is the same.”