Breaking Through Silence: Sign-Language Services (and Coffee) at the Birdcage

Ken Datugan, Eleno Machuca, and Mauricio Centeno spelling “ASL,” while Cody Gackle and Alfie Lumabas show some “love.”

When I sat down to interview the principals involved in an American Sign Language (ASL) class being given at Birdcage Coffee House over the next seven Sundays, I realized something: This was the first time I’d had a conversation with deaf people.

A lot of us hearing folk are in that boat. That’s part of the point of the class.

“You don’t have to go out and try and to find a deaf person to try to practice your signs with or try to experience deaf culture,” says Ken Datugan, who presented the idea for the class to owner Eleno Machuca shortly after the Birdcage opened in July 2009. “We bring it, and we share it in the community.”

Machuca had never been exposed to deaf culture until about four years ago, when he met Mauricio Centeno. Machuca proved to be a quick study, becoming conversational in ASL in about a month.

“In the beginning it was so difficult for me, but in one month I learn to communicate with Mauricio,” he recalls. “So I say it can be possible for other people to learn to communicate with the [non-hearing] rest of the world, too.”

Datugan, whose Datugan Dance Theatre organizes and partly sponsors the class, goes the unusual route of recruiting deaf instructors, a move that requires hearing students to have unmitigated contact with ASL and its native speakers.

“In most cases I feel that there’s a lot of hearing instructors out in the community, and I just wanted to give the opportunity to the deaf community to teach the language and the culture,” Datugan explains. “I also noticed that ASL instructors, be they hearing or deaf, [often] they’re not really involved in the deaf community. So I recruit from the [people from within] community, who can [impart] first-hand knowledge [of the community], not what comes from books.”

Cody Gackle, the instructor for the current Birdcage class, is an example. Deaf since birth, Gackle has intimate experience of the deaf culture and its intersection with the hearing world, having switched from deaf to mainstream high school at the beginning of his junior year, assisting his high-school ASL instructor, and currently serving as the Student Senate representative for the Deaf Club at Long Beach City College — all this in addition to various work he’s done as an ASL instructor.

Datugan says he recruited Gackle primarily for two reasons: he signs very clearly, and he is patient.

“When you’re teaching a beginning class, there’s nothing more important than being patient,” Datugan says. “We understand that our students come in with the pressure of interacting with a deaf person.”

Datugan, who is hearing-impaired, explains that while writing utensils will be available — though relied upon as little as possible — in the initial weeks of the class, they will be put away after the third or fourth session. “Since Cody doesn’t speak, if you’re a hearing student, you’re forced to pay attention to Cody’s sign language,” Datugan says. “With a deaf instructor, students really have no choice but to turn off their voices.”

That you’re not hearing anything here directly from Gackle here exemplifies the communication gap that exists between ASL-ignorant hearing folk and the deaf. Although there is no question Gackle and I conversed (even if through Datugan as an intermediary), I didn’t gather anything from Gackle that felt quotable — a frustrating situation for any writer wanting to quote interview subjects exactly, stay true to an individual’s idiosyncratic phraseology, etc.

That frustration was all the stronger as I conversed with Alfie Lumabas, an outreach specialist for Purple Communications, which offers interpreter services for the deaf and hearing-impaired. Watching Lumabas’s crisp, punctuated signing (Gackle seems to have a slower, more relaxed diction), I sensed I was losing much in the translation, especially when the conversation turned technological.

What’s important to note is that once a month Lumabas hosts a free workshop at the Birdcage, educating deaf and hard-of-hearing customers about the video relay services (VRS) available through Purple (laptop, iPhone, etc.), complete with set-up and training. He estimates that 20 to 40 people turn out for each workshop — a testament to the need for such services for the ever-developing communication tools in our society.

For his part, Machuca is happy to facilitate interconnectedness in whatever ways he can.

“The motivation [to offer these services at the Birdcage] was that I see so many deaf ones in the community that go to places, like a business, and have a difficult [time] communicating,” Machuca says. “Some customers come here who’s deaf, and I can see how easy [it is] for them to communicate with me [so I can] provide service.”

“Time to Learn Sign Language!” takes place every Sunday 3pm to 4pm through June 17. Cost: $5 per class. Purple Communications monthly VRS workshops are not only free, but the coffee’s on them! For more information on both: Birdcage Coffee House, 224 W. 4th St. (just west of Pacific Ave.), LB 90802; (562) 628-9835.

The guys discussing what they’re going to spell

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