Helping Hands: Classes to break communication barrier for the deaf

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By April Wright, Reporter



When Crystal Umberger places an order at McDonald’s, cashiers show a look of confusion as she tries to explain what she wants, said her husband Charles Umberger.
For Crystal, ordering at a restaurant just isn’t that simple, so she writes it down: “I want a Number 4 with a  Coke.”
Crystal was born deaf.
When her 3-year-old daughter, Jillian, had to be hospitalized, medical staff didn’t understand what Crystal was trying to tell them. There was no interpreter available.
Charles said if his daughter had suffered from a life-threatening illness, he could only imagine the worst.
That’s why the Umbergers are teaching an American Sign Language (ASL) class in Galax in an effort to create a better understanding of the deaf community.
“Language First” classes will be held at the SOBER House in Pipers Gap, beginning Dec. 5 and 6. There are 40 weekly classes throughout the year. Cost is $25 per month.
“Everywhere we go, there’s never anyone there that knows sign language,” said Charles. “It’s almost impossible for people to communicate with her.”
Charles has asked emergency personnel, medical staff, teachers and churches to begin learning the language.
Charles recently came before Galax City Council about his plan. Having people trained in sign language on staff at hospitals and other businesses should be a necessity to break these communication barriers, said Charles.
“We have a rather large deaf and hard of hearing community, but they’re overlooked,” Charles told council. “If we have someone in a wheelchair, we accommodate them with a ramp. We need to accommodate this group.”
When a community outside of Kings Port, Tenn., became more aware of the deaf and hard of hearing people, the economy was boosted, said Charles. They introduced classes and ASL-fluent individuals began working at hospitals and other businesses.
Those who are deaf just want to go where they can feel welcome. They’re looking for the same luxuries others have, he added.
“This is a good opportunity to introduce growth in the Galax area,” said Charles. “When businesses step up and put forth an effort, they will see a boost... And this opportunity for advancement will benefit the city, as well. It’ll be a small jumpstart for the city.”
Crystal had worked at a local hotel in room service, but was terminated her second day due to the language barrier, he said. “People are intimidated by deaf and hard of hearing,” Charles said.
“If these students walk away with one thing, I hope they have a better understanding of the deaf and hard of hearing culture,” said Charles.
Although there is a large deaf community in the area, he said, many are self-contained due to the language barrier.
“We want to bring down the barriers,” said Charles. “They’re brilliant if you listen to what they have to say. The communication barrier is paralyzing the community.”
Charles and Crystal began communicating over a year ago, after a mutual friend gave him her phone number.
They talked through e-mail and text messages. Then, one day he called her. No answer. He called again. No answer.
“Why don’t you answer?” he asked Crystal through a text message.
“Because I’m deaf,” Crystal replied.
“Needless to say, I was embarrassed,” said Charles.
Hooked on her sweet personality, Charles started learning sign language one word at a time. Now, he is fluent.
Crystal relocated from North Wilkesboro, N.C., to Galax early this year.
“It’s aggravating to be in this situation,” said Charles. “I want us to step forward and do something like this and be able to tap into the resources that we have.”
Charles said it’s inspiring to go from “hello” to a full conversation. It becomes addictive. First, it starts by writing notes to each other, then learning to sign.
“I was sucked in and wanted to learn more,” he said. “Compared to learning other languages, this is so simple. There’s no learning how to spell words in a different language, and it’s unreal how fast it comes to you.”

• For more information or to register for the class, call Charles Umberger at 237-6553.  The Umbergers also offer one-on-one tutoring services and interpretation. “Language First” classes will be held at the SOBER House at 1646 Pipers Gap Road, beginning Dec. 5 (mornings) and Dec. 6 (evenings). There are 40 classes throughout the year — one day a week. Cost is $25 per month, or $300 per year for the classes. An open house will be held Sunday (Nov. 20) from 4-6 p.m.