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‘I needed ASL to better understand myself’: the power of sign language

An illustration featuring purple and white morning glories and their vines along the top and bottom of the square. There are three hands in the middle of the image with different skin tones: a light shade on the left, a medium shade of beige in the middle and brown skin on the right. All three are right hands and all feature purple and white nail polish in the nails. The hand on the left is signing the letter for "A," the hand in the middle is signing the letter "S" and the hand on the right is signing the letter "L." The background behind the three hands is a light purple and white pattern.
Charnel Hunter

American sign language is the third most commonly used language in the U.S., but for many Deaf folks, it's about so much more than communication. An author, a poet and two scholars share the history and culture of ASL.

Transcript of this episode

Sara Nović was 12 years old when she failed her first hearing test at school. As a self-proclaimed nerd, this was a serious blow. Sara tried to hide the evidence by flushing her test results down the toilet, but she couldn’t bury the feeling that something deep within her was broken. Then Sara started to learn American Sign Language, and through signing, Sara found her community and her voice.

Sara is an author, advocate and educator who explored Deaf culture and joy in her latest novel “True Biz”. Sara educates host Anita Rao about the history of ASL, tracing its roots from 19th century Martha’s Vineyard to modern day classrooms. Plus, Sara details how she represented ASL on the pages of “True Biz.”

Performer Douglas Ridloff also joins the conversation, demonstrating how the flow and dimensionality of sign is depicted in ASL poetry. Douglas is the executive director of the nonprofit ASL Slam, as well as an ASL master working on film sets like Marvel’s “Eternals” and “A Quiet Place.” Together, Sara and Douglas share the importance of ASL within their own families and what they are keeping in mind when raising their young children.

Anita also meets Carolyn McCaskill and Joseph Hill, who are scholars studying Black American Sign Language, a distinct dialect of ASL. Dr. Carolyn McCaskill is a recently retired professor of Black Deaf studies from Gallaudet University and Dr. Joseph Hill is an associate professor of ASL and Interpreting Education at Rochester Institute of Technology. Carolyn and Joseph discuss the unique linguistic characteristics of BASL, sharing how the language emerged as a result of segregation.

Thank you to interpreters Joshua Steckel, Phlip Wilson, Candas Ifama Barnes and JaRon Gilchrist for their work in this conversation. Additional thanks to the Deaf-Hearing Communication Centre for connecting Embodied with Joshua.

Part One of the interview

Part Two of the interview

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Paige Miranda is a producer for "Embodied". Previously, she served as WUNC’s 2023 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.