Signs of Life at the 2013 Pittsburgh Sign-A-Thon


As a communication major through college, I don’t think I took a single core class that did not stress the importance of nonverbal communication. Sure, I knew that it was, but one thought had never really crossed my mind –“What if that was it? What if verbal communication wasn’t an option?” It is easy to make such a simple thing as the ability to hear for granted. I recently learned just how important nonverbal communication is.

This past weekend, I attended the 2013 Sign-A-Thon at The Mall at Robinson, hosted by HDS, the Center for Hearing and Deaf Services. This was an event that allowed deaf, hard-of-hearing, deafblind, and hearing persons to come together, talk, and learn from each other.

Some had attended in hopes of practicing signing, others to meet up with long-lost friends. I had attended purely out of interest.

I had first became intrigued by the power of signing when my family started to use it in order to communicate with my nephew before he was able to talk. Though I found it fascinating that so much could be spoken through minimal movement, it wasn’t until later that I would begin to understand what it would be like without the ability to hear. When I started working at VITAC, it occurred to me just how much I don’t know about the hard-of-hearing population and how much there is to learn, realizing quickly that the most subtle of all changes in text can dramatically change the meaning of what’s being said. The same applies when it comes to signing.

At one point during the course of the Sign-A-Thon, I took a look around me to see dozens of conversations being had and not a single word being spoken. What a truly amazing sight it was! The one sight I will ever forget is that of a man who was both deaf and blind having a conversation with another man. When it was this man’s turn to listen, he would raise his hands and feel the other man’s signs among his fingers. They talked and laughed they way I would with one of my oldest friends.

A central stage was set up that was used for four hours of nonstop entertainment. There were many performers that kept their audience’s attention while grabbing the eyes of passersby. Some groups interpreted songs and danced, while others told stories or acted out famous characters from their favorite films. They even had some silly contests including a cup-stacking competition and a good, old-fashioned mummy-wrap race.

Alongside the ongoing entertainment, there were numerous booths and vendors offering information on different services for the hard-of-hearing around the City of Pittsburgh. Some booths offered opportunities for those learning to sign to practice, while others were simply helping to spread awareness about the deaf, deafblind, and hard-of-hearing communities.

Sign language may be just a way of communicating for some, but to me, seemed more like a true art-form. It was a great event that really opened my eyes and helped me to appreciate my job, our company, and the services that we provide.

by Marissa Grubb