Communicating without words

Christopher Patterson teaches students American Sign Language


It is Easter and Christopher Patterson is dyeing eggs with three of the foster children he and his husband Stephen have had since March. Patterson teaches them the word in sign language for each color. The oldest, 10, asks how to sign “tea,” his favorite drink.

Patterson uses his hands to mimic the act of brewing a cup of hot tea. One hand appears to hold a cup, while the other motions as if it’s steeping a tea bag in the cup of water.

It has been a tough sign for the boy to master since he drinks iced tea, not hot tea.

The lessons are a necessity for the children—a newborn and two 1-year-olds in addition to the 10-year-old—if they want to effectively communicate with their foster, and possibly permanent, parents. Patterson is deaf.

“The earlier any child is exposed to and begins to acquire language, the better that child’s communication skills will become,” he explains.

Patterson teaches American Sign Language to students in the College of Education’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. Husband Stephen (the two were married in Washington, D.C., where gay marriage is legal) is a professional sign language translator.

Observing his class is a little like watching a game of charades as students act out words or phrases for each other to guess what it is they’re trying to tell them. The students have to guess using only gestures as well. Learning to act out words they don’t know how to sign is an important part of sign language communication and a way to understand what the world is like for a person who can’t hear.

Patterson teaches his level III class a gesture.

“What do you do when you are a deaf person and you don’t know what to sign?” Patterson asks. “You gesture.”

For verbal students learning how to communicate with deaf people, the first challenge is learning to communicate with the instructor.

“If you have a question, you can try to gesticulate, you can try to take the time and spell it out, but you know you’re improving when you’re able to communicate with your instructor,” says Matthew Taylor, a senior communication studies major from Sandersville.

Patterson decided to dedicate his life to education for and about deaf people mainly because of his experiences growing up deaf in Albany and Tifton. Born prematurely, Patterson lost his hearing when he contracted spinal meningitis a week after he was born.

During an interview assisted by Katie Wilson, a sign language interpreter in UGA’s Disability Resource Center, Patterson explains that he was fortunate to have grandparents, Carolyn and Ed White, who quickly learned ASL and taught it to him. Still, his formal education was frustrating because many teachers didn’t understand his disability.

He recalls some teachers and administrators getting his attention by pulling his face toward them—a practice he felt bordered on abuse. He decided to try and make the educational experience better for other deaf children.

Patterson taught at the Atlanta Area School for the Deaf before becoming a lecturer at UGA, where he is getting his doctorate in elementary education.

Teaching hearing students to sign means teaching them them how to present the language without words. When Patterson signs, he often uses his whole body. While his hands and arms make the words and sentences, his posture and his facial expressions convey the meaning, telling other people whether he is joking, serious, sarcastic or frustrated. It’s that part of the language that fascinates Samm Dyar, a junior international affairs major.

Samm Dyar (center), a junior from Summerville speaks with her hands during class.

“I have fallen in love with the language—with the beauty of the language,” Dyar says. “It’s very expressive. For me, it is very natural, because I’m a naturally expressive person.”

For students like Dyar, who are excelling in sign language, Patterson encourages them to explore possible career options in interpreting.

He also tries to teach his students about the culture of deaf people.

ASL students are required to participate in events in Athens that center around the deaf community. Throughout the semester, Patterson arranges outings between his students and Athens residents who are deaf to socialize and practice sign language beyond the confines of a classroom.

“You have to go out and meet deaf people,” he signs. “You have to go out and be immersed in it.”

Terrence Cain, a senior studying psychology and consumer economics, is a student in Patterson’s ASL class.

Through the College of Education, UGA’s national reputation for deaf education is growing. Joseph Tobin, the Elizabeth Garrard Hall Professor of Early Childhood Education, has been recognized for his research into deaf kindergarten education in the U.S., France and Japan. Patterson hopes to build on that reputation.

Already there are wait lists for beginning ASL classes. That popularity is encouraging to Patterson, who would like to see UGA offer a minor in deaf studies to include classes in deaf culture and history.

“I’m really hoping our program just takes off,” he signs.