Talking with your hands — both literally and figuratively
As he talks, Lawrence Reed motions with his hands. And when he can’t find the right word, he uses sign language to help him think it out, so to speak.
Both literally and figuratively, Reed speaks with his hands every day as he learns American Sign Language (ASL), but more importantly, as he navigates how to communicate in another language.
While many people don’t think of ASL as being its own language, it is. In ASL there are concepts that don’t translate to the spoken language, much in the same way that a phrase in Spanish doesn’t always translate well to English and vice versa. Clemson is the only public college in South Carolina that has an ASL program.
There is a huge need for ASL interpreters in schools, hospitals and judicial systems around the country. With its program focused on interpreting, Clemson is training students to enter those roles.
Reed transferred into Clemson as a sophomore because he wanted to pursue being an ASL interpreter. His love for ASL began as a youngster in church — a youngster who fell asleep too much for his mother’s liking, so she encouraged him to work with the interpreter in their home church.
“I really just got involved to appease my mother, but afterward, I realized I really enjoyed that community,” he said. “As a community, deaf people heavily value time with each other, using their language.”
And they’re a community that has embraced Reed with open arms, according to ASL professor Alton Brant.
“He is charming, bright; people want to be around him,” Brant said.
Reed loves the Deaf Community as much as they love him. He works with different pockets of communities around the Upstate to set up ASL Club events and deaf socials — where the students are able to come together with native ASL speakers and iron out their language and communication skills, as well as have a lot of fun.
“You sign your ‘bad signs’ and tell your story, and (the Deaf Community gets) through it. Then they answer you, and you realize how you could sign it better,” Reed said.
There is a huge need among the Deaf Community for interpreters, which is something that drives Brant every day.
As the son of deaf parents and the coordinator of Clemson’s ASL program, he understands first-hand how difficult it is for someone to make medical, legal and purchasing decisions when they can’t see it in their own language.
“Not being able to understand or hear something in your native tongue can make a situation much worse,” Brant said. “Through my work over the years, I have met deaf people who have been in jail or mental institutions for extended periods of time and don’t know why. That’s extremely emotional.”
Clemson’s ASL program has grown tremendously since Brant came on board full time 14 years ago. Now, the program — which has about 170 students — is making a move to Greenville in hopes of continuing to add more students and allow more class offerings. Some classes are already being taught at the University Center there.
“We’re learning how to use our language as an interpreter. How I talk to my deaf friend would not be how I would interpret to him,” Reed said.
With the number of opportunities for ASL-speaking graduates to gain interpreting jobs across the country, Reed and other ASL Clemson students like him will be ready to roll into these positions and give a voice to an entire community.