Written April 14, 2020
If there’s a guiding light for this book it’s the wisdom of my first ASL Interpreting professor, Dr. Nancy Sheetz, who said to a room full of very nervous beginning Interpreting students, something like—fingerspelling is the first skill you learn and the last skill you perfect.
I remember letting go a huge sigh of relief and looking around the room, seeing similar release mirrored in my fingerspelling comrades. Dr. Sheetz exuded calm and poise. Large doe-like eyes pulled us into conversation and her exquisitely manicured nails in soft pink polish, articulated manually the art of fingerspelling.
I was an outdoor enthusiast at the time, whose hands often gripped the rough edges of rocks, trying to hang on and climb ever upward, so Dr. Sheetz was a different kind of role model for me. She was a C.O.D.A., Child of Deaf Adults, submersed in the Deaf experience as soon as she popped out of the womb. For all her polished looks, she was tough as nails, conveying the real-life scenarios of a sign language interpreter and the errors they sometimes tragically made. Often tucked among the joys and rigors of the profession were the stories of heartbreak due to preventable misinterpretation—interpreters who considered themselves competent only to later realize a grave mistake had been made, and for examples in that long ago class—the mistakes were fingerspelling—that first skill we had all learned as flailing beginners, but which would be the last skill (and I might add, a continued skill) to perfect.
Before we begin the perfecting, a bit of personal background may be beneficial to understand the methodology of this book. In addition to graduating from an Interpreting Training Program, I also graduated with a degree in Social Work. My interest in the workings of the mind, and specifically how the mind can be a sound companion, has always intrigued me. In the last ten years, I’ve practiced a way of life that has served my counseling work, my interpreting career, and my personal relationships. I believe this way of life can be applied to any situation with beneficial results—it’s the practice of mindfulness.
For purposes of this writing, mindfulness is defined as awareness to what is going on inside and around us in the present moment. In my twenty plus years of interpreting experience, I have seen again and again, the pitfalls of failed communication, and typically misunderstandings revolved around two primary points 1) skill and 2) mindset. American Sign Language is a visceral, bodily experience that requires fine motor skills. The first thing that goes awry when a we are upset, nervous or overwhelmed are our nervous systems—i.e. fine motor skills. We start doing all kinds of clumsy things of which can be seen very clearly in the intricacies of fingerspelling. So, to me, what seems foremost in providing a solid message delivery is a calm and stable presence. Mindfulness of body, feelings, state of mind and the environment can help form a foundational platform for ASL communication.
Here is a refreshing fact—anyone can practice mindfulness, or awareness, which is another word used interchangeably in this book. How am I so sure? Because your mind is always aware of something. Think about it, in this moment, you are hopefully immersed in these words, but if not, your mind might have wandered to needing a stretch or what’s for dinner. Bringing our conscious attention to our hands, our bodies, the rhythm and flow of our fingers and the persons with whom we are communicating can have profound results in our communication.
Fingerspelling: A Mindful Approach will show us how to build a foundation of mindfulness and then ways of consciously and intentionally building our fingerspelling skills for the improvement of our ASL communication. Perhaps you are a professional ASL Interpreter, a student who simply loves ASL or any person, hearing or Deaf, who has within them the intuitive desire to communicate effectively. In the following pages we will tap into our innate desire and answer the question—how do we take a nuance of language, like fingerspelling, and with gentle persistent attention, strive toward clarity and understanding?