International Journeys in Deaf Culture

Old castle with courtyard in Siena, Italy. Photo Credit: "Castello di Belcaro, giardino 01" by Sailko. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Steven Mayers is an American Sign Language teacher who enjoys learning about the sign languages and deaf cultures of Europe straight from the source.

His travels for foreign language study have landed him in Greece, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, France, England and Scotland, where he’s been able to communicate directly with Deaf Europeans about their experiences. Steven is Deaf, has partial vision loss and uses a cochlear implant for access.

MIUSA: Tell us about your international foreign language study experiences.

Steven: I went to the Siena School for the Liberal Arts in Siena, Italy to study Italian Deaf Culture & History and Italian Sign Language for two weeks in a very hot, sultry climate. I finished the program with good grades, but the highlight of my Italian experience was meeting deaf Italians and discovering their native sign language methods.

I returned to Europe after the program, but I did not arrange to go through an exchange program. My objective was to independently explore my new worldly cultural experiences in Europe and to further my knowledge about deaf cultures and native European sign languages. I, in turn, taught many deaf people basic levels of American Sign Language.

What were your concerns as you prepared to travel? What kinds of resources did you use?

For several months, I researched my exchange by visiting a variety of deaf and sign language-related websites.  I made contacts with several deaf agencies and foreign sign language schools in Europe, although sometimes communication was difficult.

What was your experience in Europe?

I used my own funds to pay for all expenses on my educational trip. In each country I visited, I generally stayed in low-cost hostels, but was occasionally invited to stay with people I met. I spent six weeks in European countries, including:

  • In Scotland and England, where I visited deaf agencies, I was invited to stay with a deaf person in London, and a special education teacher in Scotland.
  • In Athens, Greece, I visited a Greek Sign Language school and observed the classroom where the hearing people studied Greek Sign Language.
  • In Rome, Italy, I visited the Italian Sign Language school and observed the classroom for the hearing students and met some deaf people at a club social event.
  • In Paris, France, I visited a well-known deaf school and demonstrated the ASL method in front of one of the classrooms. The school has an interesting program which allows deaf immigrants to learn the French language and French sign language in a specialized classroom.

I used my time in Europe to attend a few deaf cultural events in certain cities and even went to a deaf soccer tournament in Paris. I enjoyed having nice meals with my friends and some deaf people everywhere I went. To communicate with deaf people, I used native sign languages, and to communicate with hearing people, I employed written paper methods, although they often had limited English abilities.

Did you use any assistive technology during your exchange program?

I have been using a cochlear implant since 2004, which helped me identify different kinds of environmental sounds, musical sounds, and emergency sirens.

What were the benefits of the experience, and how has your international experience informed your future plans?

I want to apply my cultural teaching experiences in Europe towards the study of the enlargement of native European sign languages. In addition, I want to teach American Sign Language in the classrooms along with deaf European people in the near future. If I have the chance to go back to Europe again, I would like to further my education there.