Signing as a way of life

Thu, 01/09/2020 - 5:00pm

Manny Martin is using his two hands and fingers to make a very specific gesture and shape, and is asking “Why is that a week?” He gestures again and asks his students, “Why is that a month?” And then he explains the movement: “You go down the calendar” — “and then corrects a student. “Is your palm facing you?”

These are the specifics of American Sign Language, which Martin has been teaching for the past 25 years. He is currently offering a class at the Island Free Library.

On this day he’s in one of the basement rooms with a handful of students. When the room clears, he talks about how he became interested in ASL.

It was 1984 and he and his wife Linda had no children and no pets, but they were suddenly “approached by a friend who asked us about taking in a foster child who was 13.” The couple’s first reaction, he said, was “no way.” When they were told the child was deaf, the answer became, as Martin put it, a “double no.” He and his wife were in the dry cleaning business at the time.

But then they met the teenager, which was, Martin said, “totally life-changing.” He described the young man as “smiling, happy, contented” who was being placed in a foster family not because of family issues but so he could be nearer to the School for the Deaf in Framingham, Mass. The couple did “not know one sign,” he said, so he and his wife joined an ASL class.

Martin said the class was not a pleasant experience. They quit after four weeks. “It was awful,” he said.

As they started to meld as a family unit, Martin said, “I did a total 180,” and decided he would do anything he could to help this young man.

But Martin said that a trip to his family doctor, whom he described as an older man, to examine the teen for some sickness also became a life-changing moment. When he was alone with the doctor after the checkup, Martin said the doctor said, “Great what you’re doing with that dummy language,” and then the doctor added, in a tone that Martin described as “non-chalant:” “Back in med school we’d put a pillow over their head.”

The message, said Martin, was “Better dead than deaf,” which is the title he gave to the book about his life’s experiences. That changed the course of his life.

He said that while young man made great progress at school, complications with his biological family made it impossible for him to return to the Martins, “and he never came back,” said Martin.

But Martin also kept up with his ASL studies, and “eventually I became fluent, an interpreter and a teacher.”

When President Bill Clinton came to Worcester in 1998, Martin was invited to interpret the speech, and he said becoming a foster family to that young man, and in turn learning sign language, “gave me experiences I would never, ever have.” His teachings also introduced him to a Vietnamese student in Worcester, whose family has invited Martin to Vietnam numerous times over the years.

He has since built up the ASL programs at both the University of Rhode Island and Roger Williams University, where his ASL course recently became a Core Concentration option, and he founded the American Sign Language Academy in 2008, which is now located in Cranston, Rhode Island.

He said it is difficult to calculate what percentage of the U.S. population is deaf because the definition of deafness, unlike blindness, is not clear, but he said that it may be a “quarter of one percent” who could be identified as hearing impaired. The numbers continue to drop because the primary cause of deafness, which he described as a “sustained high fever,” is also less common.

“Get the fever down, you minimize nerve damage,” he said. “It’s that simple. A large percentage of deafness is preventable.”

When asked what benefits there are to learning American Sign Language other than communicating with those who are hearing impaired, Martin said that it “involves your body like dance or performance or gymnastics. It’s a part of you. It’s empowering.”

Anyone interested in the ASL class at the Island Free Library can call Sue Black at or at (603) 677-2356.