While at lunch with a friend recently, he pointed out that I tend to be very deliberate in my hand movements when I talk.  He suspected that I know some sign language.  He isn’t far off with that.

Learning Sign Language

When I was very young, I had a cousin who was a few years younger than me who had Down’s Syndrome.  I can remember Maureen quite well – very much a happy little girl, ornery too!  She knew a few signs, and there’s one to this day that makes me think of her – the sign for “cookie”.

Because of her, I was intrigued by sign language.  My Girl Scout handbook  had the sign language alphabet, and since I loved reading and spelling, I picked up the letters to get by, in case I couldn’t pick up other signs.

1986 Junior Girl Scout Handbook

In high school, I had the privilege to be a camp counselor at a summer camp that included people with disabilities.  One of my fellow counselors was deaf, and he helped me learn a few more signs.  I can get out a “sorry“, “thank you“, and “my name is…” confidently.

So I have a handful of phrases and an alphabet at my disposal whenever I truly need to use signs.

Using Sign Language

I never realized though how much I trusted my signing abilities until one day, while shopping at Marc’s, I noticed a deaf gentleman walk in, signing with someone else as they were crossing paths.  While I was waiting in line to check out, I noticed him towards the back of the line.  The cashier had stepped away to get change for her drawer, and the gentleman was noticeably frustrated – he didn’t know what was the hold up but he also didn’t have his friend with him to help translate.  Standing towards the back of the line, there weren’t people ahead facing him that he could lip read. I caught his attention and then signed c-h-a-n-g-e.  He perked up – someone could possibly understand him!  He was patient with my finger spelling and was thankful that I was able to tell him what was going on.  When I left the store, I realized that I used this skill when needed without hesitation and with confidence.

Using my Hands in General

Most of my gestures are more supporting roles than actual sign language signs.  One of the most common gestures I do is like squeezing an invisible ball. That gesture comes out if I’m wrapping my head around a concept while fighting a headache or some other distraction.  I also tend to gesture for tracking lists and reaching out to a crowd.  This video from my presentation at Strangeloop 2013 – on stage in front of about 600 people at the Peabody Opera House in St. Louis, MO – really captured how I use my hands in presentations.  It didn’t help that my voice was strained that day from early symptoms of viral laryngitis – by the end of the talk, my voice was showing that it was on its way out.  When I know I’m getting quieter, I tend to rely on my hands to help convey my message.

So if you talk with me and see my hands in motion, they’re typically there as support for whatever point I’m trying to make.