Mandy David’s first exposure to American Sign Language began when she was only 1 year old.
Her dad, Earl Brigham, is the deaf barber who owns Earl’s Barber Shop, which has been a staple in downtown Winter Garden for 46 years.
Brigham, who has been deaf since he was 3 years old, taught David and her other six younger siblings how to sign from the moment they were born.
“It was second nature for me because of my dad,” David said. “He wanted to instill in all of us that we could communicate with him, and the only way to do that was to teach us sign. It was nice because we had that hearing part of things where we could talk, but then we also got the sign language as well, so we were able to merge the two and learn at the same time.”
Now, David, a Windermere Town Council member, is sharing her passion for ASL with the Windermere community through her classes she is offering Friday afternoons throughout the summer.
David said her idea for offering the ASL classes in the town started after she had led storytime and sign language at the Windermere Library last fall.
Although she loved teaching the classes, she said, it was difficult to teach the combination of both children and adults at the same time. Knowing she wanted to offer something in the future for adults to try, she began forming plans for the ASL classes.
“It’s just a passion of mine, and it always has been anywhere I go,” David explained.
The ASL classes start with the basics like the alphabet and the numbers. By the end of the eight-week classes, David said, the students should have enough basic vocabulary and knowledge to go out and have a basic conversation with someone.
According to Blossom Montessori School for the Deaf, there are more than 800,000 deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals in Florida.
“You’re going to, at some point, meet somebody, and it would just be nice to be able to have a conversation, especially if they need help when they’re talking to a hearing person that doesn’t know sign language, David said. “If you have a little bit of skill it makes their day when you can communicate with them and help them out.”
David doesn’t just teach the vocabulary. The interpreter makes the students practice and add in receptive skills and facial expressions.
“Basic or advanced, I want to always teach you all the aspects of a deaf person’s life versus just the vocabulary,” David said.
One of the most difficult concepts to grasp in ASL is the grammar, where the direct object becomes the subject in a sentence.
For example, in English, if you say, “I’m going to the store,” it would be, “Store me go,” in sign language.
The ASL teacher said she had 11 students for the first class in the beginning of July and had a few more reach out after and attend the second session.
However, starting this next week, David will not be taking on any more new pupils unless they have previous sign language knowledge due to the pace of the class.
Although the classes were created primarily for Windermere residents, David said attendees come from all over the area including Winter Garden, Apopka and even one from Davenport.
“I think it’s great because it’s bringing different communities together for the same cause,” she said.
Student and Winter Garden resident Michelle Meachem said she was thrilled to see David was offering the ASL classes.
“I’ve always been fascinated with sign language,” Meachem said. “Her instruction is clear and fun. I’m looking forward to using my new skills, and I’m having a blast learning sign language. I’m officially able to greet and introduce myself now. I am looking forward to learning more and having the opportunity to use my new skills.”
David said she loves community ASL classes, which are becoming more popular, because the people who attend the classes are passionate about learning something new.
Community ASL classes also are offered by organizations like God’s Hands Agency, which offers free sign language classes at various locations, and at the Windermere Library.
David has been interpreting for more than 20 years.
As a teenager, she worked with deaf children at church and taught a deaf Sunday school class. After she married, she was an interpreter at First Baptist Church Orlando.
She worked with a few agencies in Central Florida, starting at the University of Central Florida, before deciding to create her own company in 2010, JFD Communications, which provided communication for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals.
While running her own company, David also taught sign language at Foundation Academy for three years starting in 2017.
“It’s so rewarding watching that moment on someone’s face when the concept really clicks,” David said. “Kids are sponges. They soak up so much and so quickly … but adults can too.”
She is now an interpreter for a client who lives in Los Angeles.
David explained her client is in the advertising business, and her job as an interpreter is to travel and work remotely to attend meetings, events and panels.
“Being able to be that mode of communication for a deaf person so they understand what’s going on is rewarding — it still is — because they’re like everyone else, but they just can’t hear,” David said. “With an interpreter, doors just open and they can engage in so many different groups, hobbies, work, classes and activities.”
The work is rewarding, but David admitted it also has its challenges. She said she prefers to work with a few individual clients as opposed to many so she can build rapport and trust.
“It’s important for the deaf person to trust you, that you’re going to be able to voice and articulate things the way they want you to articulate them,” David said. “It’s just a beautiful language. I think a lot of people don’t realize you probably understand more than you think, but they may be afraid of it because it’s new and different.”
One of the biggest struggles in communication for the deaf community was the onset of masks during the coronavirus pandemic.
David said she bought a clear face shield so she would still be able to interpret but wishes someone could come up with a more protective but clear concept for long-term use.
“For deaf, they rely on your facial expressions as well,” she said. “It’s not just the signs because your facial expressions will tell if you’re asking a question, if you’re mad, happy, sad — so they need to see that. If half your face is covered and all they can see is your eyes, then they can’t see everything, so it was hard.”
David is considering offering more classes, depending on her work schedule. Her hope with the classes is people will feel confident they learned something new they can use if the opportunity is presented.
“There are so many people with hearing loss of a spectrum, so they’re not completely deaf in sign, but there are a lot of people who are losing their hearing for different reasons,” David said.
David said learning and practicing sign language, as well as getting involved, is the best thing people can do to make those who are deaf feel comfortable and included.
In addition, the teacher said she would love to see more interpreters, as the lack of help in the field leads to a significant barrier for deaf individuals.
“It’s a complex language, but it’s a fun language,” David said. “It’s just a fun extra thing to learn to be able to communicate with somebody that their only disability is they just can’t hear. They can do everything else. For them, it’s that lack of communication, so if people are willing to learn to just have a little bit of a conversation with them, that goes a long way in the deaf community.”