On a Saturday morning, a group of adults gather in a circle in an elementary school classroom on the campus of Gallaudet University. Each wears a name tag — and on that name tag is a common sexual term: “Ejaculation.” “Orgasm.” “Condom.”
One by one they introduce themselves by the name on their tag. Not in spoken words, but in American Sign Language (ASL).
These are parents and caregivers who have — or work with — children who are deaf or hard of hearing. The moms and dads are bashful at first, but after signing for a few minutes, they’re laughing at themselves.
Let’s face it: Talking about sex can be awkward. Having “the talk” is hard enough — but throw in ASL, and a lot of adults — whether it’s a teacher in the classroom or mom and dad at home — can be completely stumped.
While the speaking world has convenient euphemisms for much of this stuff, in ASL some of the signs are, to put it mildly, pretty graphic. And that can make teachers and parents very uncomfortable.
“There’s a fear of, especially in ASL, the signs being pretty explicit at times, so desensitization is really key,” says Matthew Rider-Barclay. He works at the Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center at Gallaudet University.
He designs classes, workshops and seminars at Gallaudet — the liberal arts university in Washington, D.C. — and across the country, for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. His seminars are aimed at helping family members and professionals working with deaf children communicate effectively.
So is the workshop Tara Miles is leading at Kendall Demonstration Elementary School, a school for the deaf. Getting parents to open up about sex is a tricky task, she says, so she tries to bring humor to the process.
After the class wraps up, Miles notes that many of the parents visibly relaxed: “It was nice to see them get to a place where they could put down their rigidity and be calm.”
In the U.S. around 3 in 1,000 children are born with a detectable level of hearing loss, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). And more than 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents.
That creates a problem for parents who don’t know sign language fluently.
Rider-Barclay and other colleagues at Gallaudet have taken on this challenge in a big way.
How? By showing teachers of deaf students how to be more comfortable talking to their students about sex and sexuality. They also train instructors who work in mainstream classrooms with both deaf or hard-of-hearing students and normal-hearing students.
One of the first things to teach: getting comfortable with the signs. Many common terms used in sex education exist in ASL quite literally — gestures that seem to mimic the act being described. For other explicit terms, there isn’t a sign at all.
“Herpes doesn’t have a sign, so you finger-spell it,” explains Christine Gannon, director of health and wellness programs at Gallaudet.
But, she adds, sign language can also be an improvement over spoken words.
“The great thing about ASL though is, I can finger-spell herpes and then I can be more descriptive using my hands,” Gannon says. “So I can provide a visual access to what it looks like, to the symptoms that it might cause by using hands, which is a definite advantage for the deaf community over the hearing community.”
Rosina Garcia, a rising fourth-year Gallaudet student, agrees. “It’s easier to describe [sex ed terms], and we can take it from there to the English word,” she says through an interpreter. “That way you don’t miss any of the information.”
Christine Gannon notes that while there are lots of sex-ed resources online, the vast majority are not tailored to a deaf audience. And most videos aren’t subtitled or accessible for young deaf people. That’s frustrating for an educator like Gannon, who says she’s constantly trying to bring her teaching techniques into the digital age.
Her colleague Matthew Rider-Barclay puts it this way: Sex education for the deaf is like being plopped down in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language.
“The materials are going to be really well-suited to the people in that country,” he says, “but it’s not going to be accessible to you.”