Signing in after 30 years

When Jeanie Inwood recalls her early years in school, she clenches her fists and folds her arms close to her chest, the American Sign Language sign for no signing allowed, the prevailing philosophy in the education of the deaf through the 1970s.

Now, Jeanie, who has been deaf since birth, and her husband, Jim, who lost his hearing due to meningitis when he was 8 years old, can both relax those fists, extend their arms and welcome you to an introductory class in sign language, a course they have been teaching for Blackhawk Technical College’s Community Education program for more than 30 years.

The Inwoods will once again teach this spring semester at Milton High School as part of BTC’s commitment to meet the needs of the Rock and Green counties communities. This marks the 33rd year the Inwoods have taught the class for BTC.

“We want to help people learn,’’ explained Jim, who is a U.S. Postal Service employee based in Janesville. “They learn that there is another way’’ to communicate.

The people they have taught over the years fall into a variety of categories.

 A number of them are hearing parents of deaf children. Sign language is now an integral part of the overall education of deaf children, and parents benefit from learning this new language in their efforts to communicate with their children.

Often students are friends and co-workers of the deaf looking to improve their communication skills. Others are simply interested in learning a new language, even a language in which words are not spoken. For more than 30 years now, American Sign Language (ASL) has been considered a “foreign’’ language in academic circles and can be found in college catalogs to help fill a student’s foreign language requirement.

Some students become so fascinated with sign that they continue with advanced courses to become interpreters.

That was the case for Melanie Wurz, who joined the interview with the Inwoods to translate. Wurz helps the hearing impaired at BTC. Her interest in sign language began in a class like the one the Inwoods teach and she continued her studies in the Wisconsin Technical College System.

“It’s a different culture,’’ said Jim, who is more orally able than his wife because he was hearing as a youngster.

That is reflected in its very different language. The class takes you through the primary steps of learning ASL – the alphabet, finger spelling, names and the variety of signs used in daily life.

“English is word by word,’’ Jim said as Jeanie signed.

“Sign language is full of short cuts. One sign can equal four or five words,’’ he said, as she demonstrated the simple signs for “where is the bathroom?” and “go up the stairs.’’

Jeanie is very animated as she signs, an attribute that is necessary to developing skills in ASL.

“You have to be a real good actor,’’ Jeanie signed. “You have to have good facial expressions. You always use your body.’’

 Jeanie remembers the days when oral communication was emphasized to the deaf. Yet, even when sign was “banned’’ in school, deaf students learned it.

Now, she and Jim are on the other end of the classroom. They encourage their students to exclusively use sign as the class progresses. “It’s something you have to keep practicing,’’ she said.

But they both know that there will be talking behind their backs. “We can feel the air,’’ he said with a laugh.

Still, if the time should when come Jim and Jeanie stand before the class, extend their left hands palm up, hit it with an open right hand, and then take their open right hands repeatedly to their mouths, be warned. In sign language, they are asking you to stop talking.