“I learned to sign before I learned to speak,” says Ann Condrey, Interpreter Education instructor at Blue Ridge Community College. “American Sign Language was my first language.”
Condrey, born to deaf parents, did not learn to speak until she was four. “We moved to Western North Carolina from Houston. My grandparents sent me to private kindergarten to learn to talk. From what my family tells me, they haven’t been able to shut me up since.”
Condrey has put her communication skills in ASL to good use. She’s been teaching ASL in Hendersonville public schools and at BRCC since 1979. “Events in my life led me to work with deaf children in the public school system. As I was doing that, I taught sign language at BRCC through Continuing Ed. In 1993, someone from the State came to Western North Carolina and asked if there was a college that would be interested in teaching an interpretative program because we had a shortage of interpreters to meet Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines. I volunteered at BRCC and here I am.”
Teaching ASL is more than just a profession to Condrey. It’s a calling. “It’s important to me that students learn deaf culture and its language. Deaf people don’t see themselves as handicapped. They just see themselves as leading a different kind of life. There can be a lot of conflicts because hearing people don’t understand the culture. This is my opportunity to say to hearing people, ‘Look, this is what’s going on, this is what it is to be deaf. This is why you perceive things the way you do.'”
Condrey’s pupils include high school students who are working toward a foreign language credit, people looking for a new career, or those wanting to complement a career they already have. “Mostly, it’s hearing people who want to go into the field of interpreting,” says Condrey. “The greatest thing about interpreting is that you can do it just about anywhere — in the performing arts, with music, in the medical field, in education.”
According to Condrey, American Sign Language, which is the third most popular language in the country, carries the same weight and recognition as Spanish, French and other foreign languages. Yet, it’s not always recognized as such, nor is it the easiest language to learn. A considerable amount of emphasis is placed on body language and facial expressions, especially to differentiate meanings and nuances found in a single hand sign. “It’s very tactile. If you’re a person that’s very visual and tactile, you can probably learn ASL fairly quickly. On average, it takes about four years to become proficient…less if you work in the deaf community,” adds Condrey.
With all its challenges, learning ASL has its rewards. As Eileen Cook, one of Condrey’s students, says, “I want to be an interpreter and use my skills in deaf ministry and work with young children. As hearing people, we don’t realize that the deaf have their own culture. It’s just fascinating to me.”