Forging Cross-Cultural Exchanges between Deaf Italian and American Communities


4 minutes

After spending six months in northern Italy, I gather I may very well be the only deaf American here, which poses a challenge. When I was teaching the American Sign Language (ASL) & American Deaf Culture course at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, I was thinking about ways I could give my students more opportunities to practice their ASL skills and meet other Americans in the Deaf community. Where would I find such people other than myself?

One of Venice’s many canals.
One of Venice’s many canals.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Fortunately, Venice is a tourist haven. This floating city receives a staggering 20 million visitors each year and I thought for sure I’d find deaf American travelers. Through contacts and connections, I found and welcomed deaf Americans to participate in my cross-cultural initiatives.

It is in our nature to seek out other deaf people when we travel or visit an unfamiliar destination and connect as human beings with affinity for sign language or Deaf culture. Hence, my students and American guests were eager to meet and learn from each other.

John from Boston visits my classroom.
John from Boston visits my classroom.
Photo courtesy of Sheila X.

John, a deaf man from Boston, Massachusetts, had the honor of being the first deaf American to visit and meet my students. He talked about his perspective growing up deaf in the U.S., such as accommodations and rights for the hearing-impaired in employment and educational settings. Like many deaf Americans, John was deafened at a very young age and grew up speaking English. He did not learn ASL until adulthood due to the outdated notion that sign language would interfere with his speaking ability.

I was pleased to witness my students and John communicate seamlessly in ASL. Perhaps it means I taught my students conversational ASL skills very well! Outside of the course, I brought John to deaf clubs and social events in Padua to introduce him to other deaf Italians.

Rachel from Boston gives a presentation to my class.
Rachel from Boston gives a presentation to my class.
Photo courtesy of Sheila X.

My second guest was Rachel, also from Boston, and a hearing ASL interpreter. Since Italy does not recognize sign language or provide provisions for sign language interpreting standards, the deaf in Italy do not always receive support or interpretation in critical settings, such as in court and in medical facilities. Comparatively, the U.S. is renowned for high quality and extensive interpreting services for the deaf. I worked with Ca’ Foscari University to bring on an ASL interpreter I worked with as a college student to give a public seminar about the ASL interpretation profession in the U.S.

The ASL interpreter talked about her work, deaf clients’ rights, certified deaf interpreters, the Deaf Grassroots Movement, and other topics. About 50 people, deaf and hearing, from all over Veneto showed up. Some came up to me afterwards and remarked that they learned so much.

Beautiful artwork on the classroom ceiling!
Beautiful artwork on the classroom ceiling!
Photo courtesy of Sheila X.

One of the highlights of the seminar was the discussion about “Certified deaf interpreters” - deaf people who are also certified sign language interpreters. The hearing interpreter and certified deaf interpreter work together to interpret between a hearing client and a deaf client. A deaf interpreter is used for cases when a hearing interpreter may not be able to interpret effectively, such as interpreting for a deaf man who cannot read, write, or speak in English and only use gestures and “home” sign language. It turns out the concept of a “certified deaf interpreter” was foreign to many Italians.

“I love you” in American Sign Language.
“I love you” in American Sign Language.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay

In addition, a large group of deaf and hearing Americans proficient in ASL came to visit. I ended the class early and took them to a nearby bar to chat and practice their ASL skills in a social setting. Again, I was pleased to see my students communicating so well with their American counterparts. Perhaps that may be useful one day when some of them visit the U.S.

My main purpose of the seminars and meet-and-greets was to educate the community I have come to call home for the past six months. I know I can’t change the current laws or do anything on a grand scale, but I can at least show them what they could have if the circumstances were more favorable. I want deaf Italians to enjoy deaf accessibility services and other opportunities we deaf Americans take for granted. We need to work together to keep fighting for our rights and against discrimination.

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