Having not even told his parents his idea, Walker Sirmans sat down before James Hutchins, the director of the lower and middle schools, and bravely voiced his desire to offer free after-school sign language classes for his peers.
“He went in on his own without telling us he was going to do it,” Walker’s mother, Gwen Sirmans, said. “He set up an appointment with the principal and sat down with Dr. Hutchins and pitched him his proposal about what he wanted to do, and James said, ‘How do you say no to that?’”
Hutchins gave the second-grader the green light, and Walker now helps teach American Sign Language to 12 of his peers — alongside guest instructor Wendell Barnes — every Wednesday afternoon.
Walker himself is no novice to ASL.
In fact, the young boy’s idea for the classes came from a very sweet source of inspiration: his little sister, Ivey.
Communicating with Ivey
Ivey, who is 6, was born with a rare genetic syndrome due to a partial deletion of her 21st chromosome. Ivey has anophthalmia, which means she was born without her eyes. She also suffers from hearing loss, microcephaly — meaning her head is smaller than the average person’s — and a deformity to her heart. Her cleft lip and palate have been repaired and her trachea has been removed.
Because Ivey is deaf-blind, her family communicates with her by signing into her little hands.
“My sister, she’s special-needs, and you don’t see very many special-needs people,” Walker said. “She’s my sister and she’s a special-needs person and there’s just three people in the whole school that has a special-needs sister.”
Gwen said Ivey has a very tiny bit of hearing, but she’s completely blind and non-verbal. There are only five other people in the country with Ivey’s condition of whom the Sirmans are aware, and it bothered Walker that his sister couldn’t make friends as easily as other kids, because the other kids didn’t know how to talk to her.
“One of the things Walker said to us, the reason that he wanted to do this, was that he’s noticed (special needs people) don’t make friends as easily,” she said. “And this would teach his friends how to be there for people who are deaf or have other special needs, since it’s harder to communicate with them.”
“And so they’ll be included,” Walker added.
Walker and his older brother Knox started learning sign language about three years ago, when Ivey was young and they figured out they couldn’t talk to her using audible speech, Walker said. The whole family — Matt, their father, Gwen, Knox, Walker and Ivey — attends workshops for siblings of children with special needs.
“We do a lot of interaction with other families with children who are special-needs,” Gwen said. “So they participate in sibshops … where all of them interact with each other. And it gives them some normalcy and includes the siblings who are normally otherwise isolated.”
She said the Darlington students have learned some simple sign language from observing Walker and Knox with their sister.
“Already, just in the past few years being here, the people here have picked up, over time, signs that we do use with her,” said Gwen. “You’ll see as we go to the schools, whether it’s the Lower School, Middle School or Upper School, that they know how to talk to her. Just a few signs here or there, but it makes a world of difference.”
The kids who have played with and communicated with Ivey, she said, become more inclusive of others with special needs. And in all reality, those children are far less likely to view people with special needs as “other” or “different.” As every person in the world is unique, special and able, the kids view special needs children that way as well.
“We go over to McHenry (Primary) and we know as time goes, the Upper School kids interact with the (special needs) kids at McHenry,” Gwen explained. “Every year, a portion of the Lower School goes over to the Special Olympics. And since they’ve been exposed to Walker and Knox and Ivey, they get it. They just get it. It’s not just the Special Olympics. It’s normal for them on that level. And they cheer for them. They get it.”
Barnes, the lead instructor for the Darlington sign language classes, said it all comes down to welcoming others with open arms, no matter who they are.
“It’s all about learning to accept differences,” he said. “That’s what’s so wonderful these days, especially about our children with special needs who are more and more accepted among kids. Because they’re out there with Ivey and Ivey doesn’t meet a stranger. And it helps people understand.”
‘I want, you need, learn’
Barnes came to Rome in 1995 as the first and only director of an interpreter training at Floyd College — now Georgia Highlands College. Barnes signs so naturally that deaf people have approached him, asking if he is deaf. But Barnes learned to sign from an unlikely source, and experienced quite a crash course in sign language.
“I learned to sign while teaching Reading in prison,” Barnes said. “There was a deaf guy who signed in my class and he taught me.”
Barnes said he couldn’t effectively teach the deaf man during class because of the obvious language barrier. But the prisoner, who was determined enough to approach Barnes after a class, had a request for his teacher.
“He came up and got a sheet of paper off my desk and wrote ‘I want, you need, learn,’ on this piece of paper,” said Wendell, adding that the note confused him at the time. “Then he wrote down ‘man’ and he signed it. Then he wrote down ‘woman’ and he signed it. And I thought ‘Oh! He’s trying to teach me how to communicate with him.’”
Barnes said his student wrote down 100 words and the two spent hours going over their sign language translations.
“Then, he wrote down at the bottom of the paper for me to take home this list to study because tomorrow he was giving me a test,” Barnes recalled, chuckling.
And the next day, following a night of intense studying, Barnes became the pupil who was thrust into a different kind of oral exam. He said the man tested him and, after passing the test with flying colors, the prisoner knew that Barnes was serious about learning.
“He knew I was concerned about it, because most of the time, in a prison setting, all the people would sidle up to him in the yards and ask him what this explicative word was in sign language and he’d showed them … and they’d use it against him,” Barnes said. “So I worked with him one-on-one for 30 hours a week for a whole year. So I learned how to sign from a native speaker from personal instruction.”
Barnes explained that sign language is not directly derived from the English language, or any written language at all for that matter.
Sign language is conceptual — of ideas, expressions, feelings and needs. Therefore, when a deaf individual who knows sign language as a first language and English as a second, writes something down, it appears to be broken English. But really, they’re scribbling down what, in their mind, would be what they would otherwise sign. It’s a concept, and not a word-for-word language.
So when the prisoner wrote, “I want, you need, learn,” he wasn’t lacking intelligence, but instead was writing a visual representation of what he was signing in his head.
The world through a different lens
Though the Darlington sign language classes will only last a month — a total of four classes — Walker said he hoped more of his friends would want to learn so the classes could continue. The second-grader knows there are many benefits of knowing sign language.
“I just thought it would be fun for them,” he said. “If you saw a special needs person who was not happy because people weren’t like, acting … like, being nice, or helping him, you could help cheer him up. If they saw someone sad, they could start talking to them and make them happy.”
He said he likes that he can communicate with others without having to speak. And signing, he said, can help people not impulsively explode with anger at others. It almost forces people to talk it out and explain themselves.
“You don’t talk and you don’t use your mouth and you use your hands, and I like that,” Walker said. “It’s hard to get, like, really, really mad. If you got mad, you could say it but they couldn’t actually hear or see the expression of that you are mad at them. If you didn’t want someone to be upset or mad, you kind of wouldn’t (get your feelings hurt) as much as you would if you could hear something like that.”
Knox, who is 9, said it made him happy when other kids saw him signing and wanted to learn.
“I just like that you can express yourself to people and they can know what you’re saying,” he said. “You can teach others that are curious because they just don’t know. Then you teach them and they get more into it. And they come up asking you more about it. And I think that it’s fun to use my hands in different ways instead of just writing and doing other normal things. I use them for things that my friends don’t.”
Matt Sirmans said it’s heartwarming that his sons can sign to their little sister, soothing her if she cries.
“They both know how to comfort their sister when she’s upset,” he said. “They can calm her down.”
Walker said he hopes other people will one day realize they should help and accept people with special needs, rather than ostracizing them and taking advantage of them.
“Some people they, like, park in handicapped spots and they don’t do stuff that actually helps them and it makes them realize that that’s not right,” he said. “(Things like handicapped parking spots) help someone who really is special and needs help with a lot of things.”
Walker’s parents admire his ambition at such a young age, to help others learn and see the world the way he and his brother see it. Gwen said, with tears in her eyes, that she couldn’t be more proud of her boys.
“I’m just so proud; they’re just two very compassionate boys,” she said. “They see, I would say, both of them for their age see more of the world than I saw. Just until I was an adult and sort of cast into seeing it, they see a part of the world that most people miss.”