An ASL Dictionary

Signing Savvy is a sign language dictionary containing several thousand high resolution videos of American Sign Language (ASL) signs, fingerspelled words, and other common signs used within the United States and Canada.

And Much More!

Signing Savvy is an ideal resource to use while you learn sign language. It includes the ability to view large sign videos, build your own word lists and share them with others, create virtual flash cards and quizzes, print signs, build sign phrases, ...and more

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Interpreter Q & A: Why do ITP students date Deaf people while they are in the program?

Interpreter Tips   |  Sunday, December 3, 2017

By Brenda Cartwright

This article is by Brenda Cartwright. Brenda is a seasoned interpreter, a master teacher, and well known presenter. Brenda is the author of the Dear Reality column in the VIEWS publication from Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) and the book Encounters With Reality: 1001 Interpreter Scenarios. She will be contributing blog articles for Signing Savvy on interpreting, Deaf culture, and answering a series of "Dear BC" interpreter questions.

This article is part of our "Dear BC, Interpreter Q & A” series, which answers questions on interpreting and Deaf culture from multiple perspectives. This article was also published in the Fall 2017 Edition of VIEWS Magazine from RID. VIEWS is a digital publication distributed quarterly by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) and dedicated to the interpreting profession. The magazine includes RID member spotlights, announcements from the RID board, and engaging stories about issues impacting the interpreting community. See this article and more in the Fall 2017 Edition of VIEWS Magazine from RID.

Dear BC,

A recent phenomenon I have noticed is a growing tendency for ITP students to date Deaf people while they are in the program. What is behind this?

Curious Spectator

The video features a full interpretation of what is discussed in this article.

An ITP Student's Perspective:

I would say that when ITP students first get acquainted with the Deaf community, it feels like Deaf people are the coolest thing since sliced bread. In an ITP, you’re learning all these things about Deaf culture and the language. Then you meet some really awesome people from the community and it’s hard not to be star-struck. If you find out a Deaf person is interested in you, it is easy to get swept up in it all. I have even heard some students who are NERDAs (Not Even Related to a Deaf Adult) say that they are jealous of CODAs. I think what they mean is they wish they had that strong connection to the Deaf community. I can see why the Deaf community might question our motives, but as a group of young people, we are all just eager to network and navigate these new and exciting relationships.

An Experienced Interpreter's Perspective:

This may be a natural consequence of getting involved in the community, but students need to make sure their choices will benefit them and their career in the long run. Involving themselves in the community in any way that is unethical will ultimately destroy the relationship. Taking advantage or trying to get ahead with those who an interpreter relies on for their livelihood will seriously jeopardize their ability to continue in the profession.

An Experienced Deaf Consumer's Perspective:

When two people from different cultures begin dating it is easy to overlook some of the power-sharing or cultural exchanges that occur. It is important to recognize that between two cultural groups, things are equally exchanged: ASL is exchanged for English, hearing culture is exchanged for Deaf culture, and so on. If the parties are trying to exchange different things, the dynamic may shift from healthy to oppressive. ASL is a wonderful, vibrant language and the Deaf community embodies an extremely diverse and rich culture. Those in cross-cultural relationships should take care that the languages and people involved are valued and treated with respect.

What's your perspective? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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About the Author

Brenda CartwrightBrenda Cartwright is a seasoned interpreter, a master teacher, well known presenter, and author of several best selling sign language and interpreting textbooks from the RID Press. For the last 30 years Brenda has been the Chair of the Sign Language Interpreter Program at Lansing Community College in Lansing, Michigan.

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5 Cool New Features in the Updated Signing Savvy Member App

5 Cool New Features in the Updated Signing Savvy Member App

Site News   |  Saturday, November 18, 2017

By Jillian Winn

We did a complete rewrite to our Signing Savvy Member App this Fall for both Apple iOS and Android mobile devices. Since then, we have continued to release updates to the app to add more features and make tweaks based on feedback from our savvy members. The current version of the app, as of the date of this article, is version 2.4. The new app is 64-bit compatible (required for iOS 11), now supports the iPhone X display, and includes several new features. Whether you have used the mobile app for years or haven’t tried it out yet, we wanted to make sure you knew about some of the cool new things you can do with the new and improved Signing Savvy Member App.

1. Higher quality video and support for both portrait and landscape display.

All of our videos have been updated for the new app, so the videos are higher quality with crisper images. In the past, the app only worked with portrait display, but with the new app, you can turn your mobile device horizontally and the app will switch to landscape mode, which allows you to view sign videos even larger. This is a great new feature for those that want a closer view of what is being signed.

Example of Landscape View in App
Simply rotate your device to view the app in landscape mode.

2. New Improved Sign of the Day!

Do you love to see our sign of the day everyday? Our sign of the day has evolved in the past few years. Originally, we picked a random sign for the day. Now each sign of the day is thoughtfully selected to be related to something happening on that day, such as a holiday, or a deaf culture tidbit.

If you check the sign of the day on the Signing Savvy website, there is an additional description that gives some context to the sign of the day. For example (warning upcoming SOTD spoilers!)… the sign on November 21st, 2017 will be GAME because it will be “National Game & Puzzle Week”… the sign on November 29th, 2017 will be ROLE because “Linda Bove was born in November. She is a deaf actress and played the ROLE of Linda the librarian on Sesame Street for 31 years.”

Although we have had these added descriptions that explain why the sign of the day was selected on our website for some time, they were not in the app, but now they are!

Sign Notice for Sign of the Day
The sign notice explains why the sign is the Sign of the Day.

3. Signed Sentences of the Day!

If you don’t already follow us on our Signing Savvy Twitter Feed or "like" our Signing Savvy Facebook Page, you might not have noticed we have signed sentences of the day that go with our sign of the day on the Signing Savvy website. The signed sentences help people see more signed examples and see signs used in context. Now signed sentences of the day are also available in the Signing Savvy Member App!

The sentences can be found in the app by clicking on the “Examples” tab under the sign video. Here is an example of a signed sentence. 

Sentence of the Day in the app
See signed example sentences by clicking on the Examples tab.

4. Images

For the last few years, we have been adding images to signs on the Signing Savvy website, but these images were not shown in the old Signing Savvy Member App. The updated mobile app now includes these images - just click on the image tab to see related images that help you understand the meaning of the sign, particularly for young learners. Images have also been integrated into the word lists and digital flash cards in the app.

Example Images in App
Click on the Images tab to see example images of the sign meaning.

5. Audio to go with signs.

You have probably noticed that our signed videos do not include audio. Signing does include inflections and mouth morphemes, but it’s not natural to be speaking as you are signing. However, we’ve gotten feedback specifically from some teachers that being able to see the sign video, the written word, an image of the word, and have the ability to hear the word would be helpful for hearing students. We have now added this optional feature into the member app.

Example Audio in App
Click on the Sound Icon in the app to hear audio of what is being signed.

And there is more...

We have also added many improvements to the user interface, word lists and digital flash cards in the app, but we’re already covered FIVE cool new features in the updated Signing Savvy Member App, so stay tuned for a future article that goes into more detail on the new features of word lists and digital flash cards in the app.

If you are a Signing Savvy member and have an Apple iOS or Android mobile device, make sure to download the latest version of the Signing Savvy Member App today! If you are not yet a member, the Signing Savvy Member App is an excellent reason to become a member so you can access the Signing Savvy learning resources in a streamlined fashion when you are on-the-go.


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Teaching Language Through Play: Lessons Learned While Playing Restaurant and Getting Started with Introducing Food

Teaching Language Through Play: Lessons Learned While Playing Restaurant and Getting Started with Introducing Food

Teaching Tips   |  Wednesday, November 1, 2017

By John Miller

Kids naturally learn while they are playing. Introducing activities that allow them to learn through play lets them explore their curiosity, have new experiences, and better connect and retain what they have learned.

Lessons Learned While Playing "Restaurant"

One great example of a learning through play activity is setting up an area to play “restaurant” in the classroom (or at home). Playing restaurant is a very successful way to cover several areas all at the same time – vocabulary, health and nutrition, math, time, professions, and manners.

Think about a restaurant experience, including:

  • Choosing a restaurant
  • Getting to the restaurant
  • Parking the car
  • Talking to a hostess
  • Being seated or seating yourself
  • Looking through the menu and deciding what to eat
  • Ordering
  • Setting the table
  • Where the food comes from and cooking the meal
  • The people working in the restaurant and what they do
  • Serving the meal
  • Table manners and eating
  • How much things cost and paying
  • Taking payment and giving change
  • Feeling thankful and showing appreciation

Many lessons can all be taught through fun and interesting role play that involve tons and tons of lessons and vocabulary. These are all concepts that not only provide education related to curriculum goals, but allow the child to experiment in a safe environment and experience through play, which can help them be better prepared for real world situations.

One example of this is confidence building when ordering at a restaurant. It is not unusual to see young deaf teens that don’t feel comfortable enough in a restaurant environment to make their own order. Often their parents jump in and “rescue” them because they naturally want to protect their child from an uncomfortable situation. That is part of what this activity and lesson is all about. The more you educate and familiarize your students with these situations, the more prepared they will be to handle real world situations.

Through a series of blog articles, I will provide example lessons and activities related to playing restaurant. To get started, this article will discuss the first step of introducing food.

Lesson: Introducing Food

Take the time to introduce food through a formal lesson. I like to introduce real food and pretend food together. Allow the students to touch and taste the real food before they interact with the play food. Show them how to prepare it (do you have to peel it? remove seeds? cook it first?), ways to eat it, and examples of how to use it in dishes. You can share nutritional information and health benefits about the food. Anything you can do to expand their experience with the food will help them to remember both the signs and also any facts you teach about the food. 

This is a fun activity that students will be excited to share with their parents. Letting parents know the signs used in this lesson will encourage them to keep the discussion through signing going on at home. If you are a member on Signing Savvy, you can create your own word list for this lesson or you can use one of our pre-built word lists (this can help outline your lesson plan also!). Then send the link to the word list(s) home to parents so that they can easily access them and learn them for themselves, or support the learning that happens at school (they don’t have to be a Signing Savvy member to view the signs in your word lists). Additionally, Signing Savvy members can use word lists to practice vocabulary through quizzes and digital flash cards.

Below are some posters and word lists to get you started.

Vegetables in ASL

Vegetables in American Sign Language (ASL)

Signing Savvy Member Feature: Download this image / flyer as a printable PDF page.
Corresponding Wordlist: Vegetables in ASL poster wordlist

Fruit in ASL

Fruit in American Sign Language (ASL)

Signing Savvy Member Feature: Download this image / flyer as a printable PDF page.
Corresponding Wordlist: Fruit in ASL poster wordlist

Supplies Needed

Unfortunately, we can’t always have access to a variety of real food to taste test in the classroom! To get students engaged in this activity and to prepare for future restaurant play-based lessons, it is important to establish a good supply of pretend foods that would cover not only the food groups, but also be able to make up meals that would cover breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is good to have a variety of pretend foods, even if there is some overlap, to be able to show your students that the food they consume can come in different colors and sizes (a cut up carrot as opposed to a whole carrot or even a shredded carrot; OR the fact that a whole peach looks much different than a sliced, peeled, or canned peach).

Below is a list of many great options you can purchase directly off Amazon to get you started.  Some of them even come with different lesson suggestions and activities you can do with your children as well. We’ve also created pre-built wordlists of signs to accompany each set of play food.

Peel N' Play Veggies Playset (By Small World Toys)

View word list of ASL signs for Play Veggies Playset

Farmers Market Color Sorting Set (By Learning Resources)

View word list of ASL signs for farmers market color sorting set

Cutting Food & Fruit Sets (By Melissa and Doug)

View word list of ASL signs for cutting food and fruit sets

Tote with Fruit & Veggies (By New Sprouts)

View word list of ASL signs for tote with fruit and vegetables

Healthy Dinner Set (By New Sprouts)

View word list of ASL signs for healthy dinner set

Grocery Basket with Fruit & Veggies (By Casdon)

View word list of ASL signs for grocery basket fruit and vegetables

Large Variety Pack of Food (By Liberty Imports)

View word list of ASL signs for large variety pack of food

Fast Food & Dessert Play Food (By Liberty Imports)

View word list of ASL signs for fast food and dessert play food

Burger, Hot Dog, Chips, & Onion Rings Food Set (By Liberty Imports)

View word list of ASL signs for fast burger, hot dog, chips, and onion rings food

Introduce your children to food and establish a good supply of pretend food, then watch for future blogs discussing other play-based lessons for your classroom restaurant.


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Signs That Are Close... But Not the Same - Set 6

Signs That Are Close... But Not the Same - Set 6

Learning Tips   |  Monday, September 25, 2017

By Brenda Cartwright

This article is by Brenda Cartwright. Brenda is a seasoned interpreter, a master teacher, and well known presenter. Brenda is the author of the Dear Reality column in the VIEWS publication from Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) and the book Encounters With Reality: 1001 Interpreter Scenarios. She will be contributing blog articles for Signing Savvy on interpreting, Deaf culture, and answering a series of "Dear BC" interpreter questions.

This article is part of our “Signs That Are Close... But Not the Same” series, which highlights signs that look similar, but have different meanings.

Hello! Brenda Cartwright (BC) here. Let's continue on the fun topic of: “Signs That Are Close... But Not the Same.”

The ASL signs shown below look similar, but are not the same. There are many ASL signs that when produced look similar, but in fact have a completely different meaning. Below you will find examples of such signs. Watch closely to see if you can see the difference. In addition, watch my eyebrows, look to see when I tilt my head or lean my body in a certain way, even what my mouth is doing. These nuances are called inflections and trust me, inflections matter. Enjoy!

1. Vacation vs. Day Off

VACATION and DAY OFF use the same handshape, palm orientation, location, and movement - both open 5-hands, with palms down, come in and tap near your armpits. The difference between these two signs is that VACATION taps twice and DAY OFF taps once. How can you remember the difference between the two? Think of DAY OFF tapping only once because it is a single day, while a VACATION is for multiple days (hopefully!).

Day Off

2. Concern vs. Excite

Two 25-hands are used for both CONCERN and EXCITE, but the movement is different. When signing CONCERN, the hands move towards and away from the body with the middle fingers of each hand alternately touching the chest. Think of this movement as having CONCERN between different things and weighing the options. EXCITE has your middle fingers alternately touching your chest as you move your hands in an upward, circular motion. Think of your heart beating rapidly with anticipation while signing EXCITE.


3. Prefer vs. Taste

With both PREFER and TASTE, the 25-hand moves towards the face and your middle finger taps twice, but the location the finger touches is different. PREFER touches the chin, while TASTE touches the lips. You can remember to touch the lips when signing TASTE because food tastes good in your mouth and PREFER is signed close to, but lower than, where TASTE is signed because when you prefer something, you have a taste for it.


4. Lonely vs. Real

The 1-hand is used near the mouth when signing both LONELY and REAL. When signing LONELY, the 1-hand makes a circular motion back toward the face. To remember the sign for LONELY, think of having no one to kiss. To sign REAL, the 1-hand makes a swift motion up and out from the mouth and the straightforward motion suggests truth or keeping it real.


5. Odd vs. Look For

ODD and LOOK FOR both use the dominant C-hand starting on the dominate side of your face. When signing ODD, the hand arches across the face and down, while a circular motion is made twice when signing LOOK FOR. You can remember the difference between these two signs by thinking of the circular motion made while signing LOOK FOR as the motion made when using a looking glass and searching for something. The C-hand arches or flips down when signing ODD indicating something is different or odd.


These examples are aligned with the Visual Discrimination section of Lesson 9 (page 109) from Lessons and Activities in American Sign Language by Brenda E. Cartwright and Suellen J. Bahleda. Check out the book for more ASL Activities and watch for more examples from this series: “Signs That Are Close... But Not the Same.”


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About the Author

Brenda CartwrightBrenda Cartwright is a seasoned interpreter, a master teacher, well known presenter, and author of several best selling sign language and interpreting textbooks from the RID Press. For the last 30 years Brenda has been the Chair of the Sign Language Interpreter Program at Lansing Community College in Lansing, Michigan.

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Debbie Wright's Story: A Journey of Discovery with Usher Syndrome and Being Deafblind

Debbie Wright's Story: A Journey of Discovery with Usher Syndrome and Being Deafblind

Deaf Culture   |  Monday, June 26, 2017

By Kathleen Marcath

This article is by guest blogger Kathleen Marcath. Kathleen has a BA in Deaf Community Studies and is passionate about helping students and families make connections through American Sign Language.

While in the company of friends seeking a cure for blindness at a VisionWalk luncheon held by The Foundation Fighting Blindness (FFB), Debbie Wright and her mother Joan candidly share their personal story - their choices, the learning, denying, and accepting the reality of living with Usher syndrome and being Deafblind. This is Debbie Wright's story, as told by Debbie and her mother Joan - a journey of discovery with Usher syndrome and being Deafblind.

An Important Question: Can Debbie Hear?

Debbie Wright as a baby.
Debbie Wright as a baby. (Source: Wright Family)

For Debbie Wright, the diagnosis of her hearing loss would take nearly ten months at the persistence only of her mother. Her mother, Joan, was a special education teacher observant and intuitive in working with blind children. Joan clearly remembers the day Debbie was born, her third child, along with the events before being released from the hospital.

It was June 1969. After a normal delivery, the customary hospital stay was three days or more. Debbie was brought in for feeding after delivery; she was lying on the foot of Joan’s hospital bed. Suddenly a food tray crashed to the floor in the hallway, startling everyone, but not Debbie.

Joan was puzzled. Joan shared her concern with Debbie’s dad, Richard. Richard assured her, they had two children at home who could hear just fine, naturally their third child could hear also. Each day in the hospital, Joan kept a watchful eye on Debbie’s responses to sound. Debbie was not underweight and did not present any other reason to suspect that she might have a hearing loss that would warrant medical concern. However, before leaving to take Debbie home she had convinced the doctor to perform a hearing screening.

The audiogram for Debbie was performed in Joan’s hospital room. Joan recalls, "the tools were primitive." The room was noisy with loud banging and the slamming of doors. Nonetheless Debbie’s hospital audiogram recorded "normal" hearing.

Causes of Hearing Loss in Newborns

About 2 to 3 out of every 1,000 children in the United States are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears.

More than 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents. About 1 out of 2 cases of hearing loss in babies is due to genetic causes. Some babies with a genetic cause for their hearing loss might have family members who also have a hearing loss. However, it’s important to note that less than 10% of children born deaf are born to deaf parents.

About 1 out of 3 babies with genetic hearing loss have a “syndrome.” This means they have other conditions in addition to the hearing loss, such as Down syndrome or Usher syndrome. It’s reported that 1 out of 4 cases of hearing loss in babies is due to maternal infections during pregnancy, complications after birth, and head trauma. For about 1 out of 4 babies born with hearing loss, the cause is unknown.


Joan’s concerns were disregarded at Debbie’s wellness checkups. Each visit the doctor performed his own little hearing test concluding "hearing grows." He would explain Debbie was fine and say maybe the next month they would see nothing is wrong with her hearing, it’s normal.

Finally at three months of age Joan convinced the pediatrician Debbie was not hearing like she should. The doctor sent Debbie to an audiologist. The audiologist evaluation consisted of one primitive test - a demonstration for a group of residents. She shook a rattle while moving it around Debbie’s face. Debbie responded! Joan instantly declared, “I know, she can see!” Leaving the appointment with no more answers than she had before, Joan continued to perceive her child could see, but was not responding appropriately to sound. Joan made more appointments, asked more questions, until the medical professionals heard her.

An extended stay of five days at a local hospital was recommended to investigate and identify Debbie's audio abilities. An audiologist and specialist working with hard of hearing infants prescribed a hearing aid. After more visits a second hearing aid was ordered for Debbie. Her mother’s intuition was right; finally, at ten months of age, Debbie had not one, but two hearing aids. Debbie was born with a congenital hearing loss, meaning the loss occurred before birth, and she was profoundly deaf.

Example Audiogram
This is an example of an audiogram. An audiogram is a graph that shows results of hearing tests. This example shows the typical hearing level (level of loudness) and frequency (low to high pitch) of different items. With normal hearing, the softest sounds heard are between -10 and 25 dB. If sounds are louder than 25 dB and they still can’t be heard, then there is some degree of hearing loss. The term “Speech Banana” is used to describe the area on the audiogram where phonemes (sounds of human speech) are typically heard. (Sources: Signing Savvy, American Academy of Audiology, and Phonak)

With a profound hearing loss, a child receives very little auditory information. A speech banana provides a clear picture of sounds identifying frequency in hertz and the intensity in decibels. Debbie’s hearing loss at ten months of age was 95 decibels. Amplified sounds heard with hearing aids are not the same as normal hearing. The Wrights wanted Debbie to learn to speak since they all spoke. Debbie’s education began immediately.

Early Hearing Detection and Intervention

Interestingly, it was also the year Debbie was born, in 1969, that the Joint Committee on Infant Hearing was formed by a team of people in audiology, otolaryngology, pediatrics, and nursing to make recommendations for early detection of hearing loss. The importance of identifying congenital hearing loss during the first few months of life has been recognized since the 1940’s. However, it was difficult to implement programs for identifying hearing loss during the first few months of life until effective newborn hearing screening equipment and procedures became available in the late 1980s. The Joint Committee on Infant Hearing is an advocate for Early Hearing Detection and Intervention.

Early Hearing Detection and Intervention refers to the practice of screening every newborn for hearing loss prior to hospital discharge. Infants not passing the screening receive diagnostic evaluation before three months of age and, when necessary, are enrolled in early intervention programs by six months of age. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have Early Hearing Detection and Intervention laws or voluntary compliance programs that screen hearing.


A Mission to Help Debbie to Speak: Immersion into Oral Education

Debbie’s dad penned an article in the Detroit Magazine, "Debbie Will Talk: The Education of a Deaf Child and Her Parents."  He wrote, "Since my wife and I and our two older children hear, it is natural that our overriding concern is that Debbie learned to speak, to communicate with the hearing world." The Wrights utilized every source available to achieve their goal to have Debbie speak. They joined the Greater Detroit Association of Oral Education of Hearing Impaired. They looked into the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. They sought out the Spencer Tracy Correspondence Course for Lip Reading. They utilized the Detroit Day School for the Deaf, Detroit Medical Rehabilitation Center and programs offered by Wayne State University.

Article: Debbie Will Talk: The Education of a Deaf child and her parents
Article: Debbie will talk: The education of a Deaf child and her parents (Source: Scanned article provided from the Wright Family. Citation: Wright, D. (1972, March 12). The Detroit Magazine / The Detroit Free Press.)

Debbie Wright as a child.
Debbie Wright as a child. (Source: Wright Family)

Debbie was immersed into an oral program at home and once a week Debbie, at ten months of age, attended an auditory training program. With Joan’s professional training as a special education teacher, she knew, "Debbie was not dumb; she just had a problem hearing." Joan labeled everything in the house for Debbie. The furniture, doors, lights, toys, anything and everything was tagged with written words. At eighteen months old, Debbie attended a weekly oral program at both the Detroit Day School for the Deaf and Detroit Medical Rehabilitation Center.

With great joy, Joan told about the day her toddler responded to the word "BALL." Joan had said, “Debbie, go get your ball.” For the first time Debbie understood the motion or movement of a person’s mouth, their facial expression and body language all had meaning. Joan was pleased that Debbie was walking by age two. By age three Debbie attended all-day preschool. She did not learn any sign language in preschool. Joan remarked, "Some of the older kids signed a little. It was an oral program where Debbie was being taught to speak."

Debbie Wright as a kid.
Debbie Wright as a kid. (Source: Wright Family)

Debbie and her family broke ground for special education in the mainstream program and full-day kindergarten. Debbie was mainstreamed before a structure for mainstreamed education was understood. Joan recalls Debbie’s kindergarten IQ tested at 145, she was a very bright child. Debbie attended Detroit Day School for the Deaf for morning kindergarten classes in an oral program. In the afternoon she went to a regular kindergarten classroom in the public Grosse Pointe Schools. There Debbie was included in class with the hearing world (this practice, when children with special needs are educated in regular classrooms, is called mainstreaming).

The U.S. Department of Education began to realize a shift in education for special needs children. Half-day kindergarten was the model of education until recent years, then full-day kindergarten had become the new standard. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 passed when Debbie was six years old. Over the years more acts were passed to improve the education provided for children classified as handicapped. Today IDEA, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 2004, is in place in our public school system.

It’s important to note members of the Deaf community do not consider deafness a handicap or disability. A study entitled Deafness as Culture explained, "On the one hand, deafness has historically been viewed as a physical impairment associated with such disabilities as blindness, cognitive, and motor impairments. On the other hand, views on deafness as a culture have recently emerged that consider deafness as a trait, not as a disability" (Jones, M. A. (2002, Spring). Deafness as Culture: A Psychosocial Perspective. Disability Studies Quarterly, 22(2), 51-60. Retrieved 5/30/2017 from

Special Education Laws

Public Law 94-142: The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) of 1975

Public Law 94-142, also known as The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, was passed November 19, 1975. “P.L. 94-142 guaranteed a free appropriate public education to each child with a disability. This law had a dramatic, positive impact on millions of children with disabilities in every state and each local community across the country.” Congress amended and renamed this law several times after it was enacted.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

Congress renamed The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (P.L. 94-142) in 1990 to The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). “The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law ensuring services to children with disabilities throughout the nation. IDEA governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education and related services to more than 6.5 million eligible infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities. Infants and toddlers with disabilities (birth-2) and their families receive early intervention services under IDEA Part C. Children and youth (ages 3-21) receive special education and related services under IDEA Part B.”


Children and youth who are profoundly deaf are eligible for programs and services mandated by IDEA. In the process each child has a written plan to meet their educational needs. The written plan is their Individualized Education Program (IEP). Together a team discusses the best practices for each student; an IEP is drafted to satisfy their special needs to an equal education. There is tremendous debate over the programs and services that best serve Deaf children in the mainstream school system. The Wrights agreed on an oral program for Debbie who was about to face even a greater challenge, losing her vision.

A Diagnosis: Confirmed Usher Syndrome

The nerve cell damage that caused Debbie's profound hearing loss was only half of her worries.  At age seven Debbie's parents learned she also had RP or retinitis pigmentosa. Joan and Richard were devastated and determined it wise to spare Debbie the anxiety of knowing she would become blind until she was fourteen years of age. Even after telling Debbie she, "would be losing eye sight," it did not fully sink in until she was in her late twenties.

It was at a VisionWalk Kick‐off luncheon that I interviewed Debbie Wright. She had a favorite interpreter with her. Debbie requested the interpreter voice for her and sign for me; I was a student learning sign language at the time. The three of us sat in a little circle that put both the interpreter and me in Debbie’s narrow window of sight. Throughout the interview Debbie kept her focus on communicating with me as her interpreter voiced the communication.

Debbie described the first time she realized she was really becoming blind. She began with a deep breath and a slight cringe, "I had been at the mall, I ran straight into a lady!" Using classifiers while signing, Debbie illustrated casually strolling through the mall, enjoying the day, minding her own business, when suddenly she was face to face with a woman.

The interpreter relays Debbie’s story, "I walked straight into her, I never saw her. The woman was shorter than me. Before I realized she was there, I walked smack into her, and nearly knocked her down."

Leaning back, slightly pausing, she closed her eyes but for a moment. No interpreter was needed to understand the communication, "I felt so bad."

Debbie had come face to face with the brutality of Usher’s syndrome, "I went home and cried."

Then without hesitation or further remorse she affirmed, "I accepted that I was going blind. I started using a white cane."

Compassion let a tear well up and in the next breath admiration for her bravery, her strength of character to accept a cane. Two of her five senses were damaged by a recessive inheritance pattern; Usher syndrome was running her life and Debbie had no voice in the matter. Debbie did have a choice to not give up, count her blessings, and move forward.

About Usher Syndrome

One third of genetically based hearing losses are syndromic, which are associated with abnormalities. The combination of progressive vision loss and hearing impairment are known as Usher syndrome according to The Foundation Fighting Blindness:

“Usher syndrome is passed from parents to their offspring through an autosomal recessive inheritance pattern. In this type of inheritance, two copies of a mutated gene, one from each parent, are required for the child to be affected. A person with only one copy of the gene is a carrier and rarely has any symptoms.”

The Problem with Nerve Cells and Photoreceptor Cells

According to The Foundation Fighting Blindness, the mutation expresses in the nerve cells of the cochlea, which is responsible for sound in the inner ear. The damaged nerve cells cause sound to never reach the auditory nerve and send the audio message to the brain. Children may be born completely deaf, have moderate to severe hearing impairment or be born with good or mild hearing impairment, depending if the infant has Usher syndrome type 1, type 2 or type 3.

The photoreceptor cells or the rods and cones, in the back of the eye, are responsible for converting light into electrical impulses. These electrical impulses then transport the visual message to the brain. Retinitis pigmentosa is generally not realized until adolescence or early adulthood. The first symptoms of RP are night blindness and peripheral vision loss. As the rods and cones degenerate the visual field becomes progressively smaller. There are many genetic variations responsible for nerve cells and photoreceptor cells to malfunction. This and much more information can be found at


A Reason to Celebrate: Educational Achievements

Achievement! Debbie’s educational experience was never lacking of ample success. She achieved high grades while in Parcells Middle School in Grosse Pointe Woods. Debbie earned a 3.8 grade point average. At age 14, Debbie was awarded a Certificate of Achievement from the Council for Exceptional Children, from Reston, Virginia. Joan saved the article from the Free Press, “Debbie transcends her silent world” celebrating her achievements and the award that was presented to her by her school.

Article: Debbie transcends her silent world
Article: Debbie transcends her silent world (Source: Scanned article provided from the Wright Family. Citation: Goldberg, S. (1983, July 7). Debbie transcends her silent world. The Detroit Free Press.)

Attending Grosse Pointe North High School, Debbie won a Detroit Free Press writing contest and the nickname, “Kid with the Wright stuff.” While her sense of sight and sound were limited, Debbie had an amazing sense of humor joking, “I have both senses of humor, blind and deaf.”

Article: Kid with the Wright Stuff
Article: Kid with the Wright stuff earns Wayne State bachelor's degree (Source: Scanned article provided from the Wright Family. Citation: (1993, January 14). Kid with the Wright stuff earns Wayne State bachelor's degree. Inside Wayne State.)

After high school, Debbie attended Madonna University where she quickly learned sign language. Joan remembers she practiced non‐stop. Signing everything and anything entering her senses, including closed-captioned television. Debbie had found the power of a spatial-visual language to gain information quickly and effortlessly. Joan said early in Debbie’s life that she was a very bright girl, "she just couldn’t hear like we do." Madonna University’s program for Sign Language Studies is structured for students to gain fluency while earning a bachelor’s degree. In two years, she had learned ASL. Debbie quickly became a fluent signer.

The quest for knowledge continued, taking Debbie to the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind in a program for youth and adults. This was a new experience for Debbie, being away from home. She was twenty years old. Classes began in June and by November Debbie was ready to come home to be near family.

Debbie ventured out again to Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. Here she was again in a mainstream environment and the only Deaf student. This time though, Debbie had a new language that she loved, but no one to communicate in ASL with her.

Article: Kid with the Wright stuff earns Wayne State bachelor's degree
Article: Kid with the Wright stuff earns Wayne State bachelor's degree (Source: Scanned article provided from the Wright Family. Citation: (1993, January 14). Kid with the Wright stuff earns Wayne State bachelor's degree. Inside Wayne State.)

Eventually, Debbie followed the rest of her family in attending Wayne State University - where her father had become a Professor and the Program Director for the Journalism Department. Then fluent in ASL, Debbie was pleased that the office of Wayne State Handicapper Educational Services provided her with interpreters. Debbie and Joan confirmed that finding qualified interpreters in the early 90’s was difficult. Wayne State continued to provide interpreters, seeking ones who were qualified and the best match for Debbie. The “kid with the Wright stuff” earned a bachelor’s degree in Psychology. In an article in the Inside Wayne State paper the students, staff, and professors had all come to know Debbie and admire her positive outlook. She affirmed, “Don't grieve for what you’ve lost, rather appreciate what you have and who you are, how you are.”

“Don't grieve for what you’ve lost, rather appreciate what you have and who you are, how you are.”

- Debbie Wright

Debbie’s family congratulated and celebrated with Debbie every step along her journey. Attaining a Masters Degree in Rehab Counseling from Wayne State University gave her an advantage. Her family was especially proud that after graduation Jewish Vocational Services hired her as a caseworker.

A Curve Ball: Life’s Challenges

The Cochlear implant (CI), a surgically implanted electronic device to simulate hearing, sometimes fails! At forty-one Debbie got a CI. Joan was a big advocate for Debbie to get the Cochlear implant, hoping it would help her to communicate with the family.

While Joan has taken sign language classes, sign language has not come as easily for her or the family as it did for Debbie. Joan genuinely wanted her daughter to hear her voice, talk to her and with her; that was her expectation for the CI.

In anticipation of Debbie hearing, Joan offered, "We work with the Cochlear implant to learn environmental sounds, but the Cochlear implant is not giving her speech sounds. Debbie needed the Cochlear implant at age two, but it was not available to us then."

Debbie shared, "At forty-one I got a Cochlear implant. It was not successful." She affirmed as a matter of fact, "It should have allowed me to at least tell the difference between a dog barking or a car going down the road. But I can’t hear."

Describing the sensations of her Cochlear implant Debbie shared, "I feel vibrations through my eyes, but it was a failure. I wish I had not had the surgery. I am not wearing it now."

To Debbie the CI was like one of the numerous hearing aids her mom wanted her to wear, "She had me wear so many different hearing aids over the years." Debbie simply preferred not to wear hearing devices of any kind, ever.

There are numerous factors to consider when contemplating a Cochlear implant. As Debbie and Joan learned, they do not always work. The problem of a CI that is ineffective, is not the only concern for individuals who have an electronic Cochlear implant.

Since our interview Debbie experienced a medical situation that required her to have an MRI. A patient implanted with a Cochlear implant cannot undergo an MRI. In order for Debbie to have the needed MRI she had to first undergo surgery to have the implant removed. After the CI was removed Debbie could have the needed MRI. Then another surgery was required to replace the CI. At a later date, Debbie had a fourth surgery to permanently remove her Cochlear implant. All residual hearing is destroyed when a CI is removed. Debbie’s communication is gathered in silence without a sound, sensitive to vibrations, feeling the movement around her she absorbs information through diminishing sight, is there a chance Debbie’s vision can be restored?

An On-Going Discovery: Finding Help and Hope

At a VisionWalk for The Foundation Fighting Blindness
At a VisionWalk for The Foundation Fighting Blindness (Sources: Sara Develbiss, Foundation Fighting Blindness; Kathleen Marcath).

The search for a cure for retinal degenerative eye diseases began before Debbie or her family knew she would ever benefit from a cure. It was 1971 when Gordon Gund established The Foundation Fighting Blindness (FFB). The Eastern Michigan Chapter had been established and in 1991 Joan became the chapter President. Joan emphatically praises FFB for recognizing the problem, offering hope and pressing in to find a cure for retinal degenerative eye diseases. The foundation provides valuable information on eye diseases, research updates, low vision resources, and networking opportunities. Through local chapters and national conferences FFB members stay informed, connected, and actively living a full life, rich with purpose.

Joan along with millions of parents, children, family members and friends participate each year raising funds, keeping an eye on the cure. Over the years the foundation evolved and created VisionWalk. VisionWalks are held throughout the United States to raise awareness and funds for critical research.

Debbie’s Perspective

The VisionWalk luncheon was complete as guests shared stories and began parting, but I had a few more questions for Debbie. When asked further about her thoughts she was clear, "Yes, I hope FFB with VisionWalk will find a cure. I believe they will do that in my lifetime. That is very exciting!"

Debbie responded about her desire to see, "Absolutely! But I am fortunate that my vision has stayed the same for about thirteen‐fourteen years now. That is a very good thing."

Her response was a little different when asked if she wished she could hear.

Affirmatively she signed as the interpreter reiterated her message, "No, if I were born black would I want to have surgery to change my skin color? Do something to change me into another color? No!"

After a slight pause with deep conviction and a passionate manner she continued, "That is ridiculous, that would not be who I am. I am Deaf. That is who I am, and I do not, and would not, want to change that."

Having fully expressed her position on who she is, she glanced at the guide dog resting on the floor next to her and reached down, petting him with a smile, "I have my guide dog, Pete."

Pausing a moment she continued, "The biggest frustration in my life is communication, obviously with hearing people."

Debbie set up the interview in such a way that her "voice" through the interpreter would be heard clearly and directed to the person she was in communication with, that being me. Through this interview I realized the brilliance Debbie possesses. In setting up everyone’s role and position in the interview she had subtly made the point to include all parties in the conversation, leaving no one out, as so often happens to Deaf people in a hearing world.

As I paused to reflect, Debbie continued signing and the interpreter voiced, "I think I had a great education in the Grosse Pointe School System. I would not want to change that. I would not have liked going to a residential school."

Debbie concluded, "I do wish I had learned sign language when I was younger."

I thanked Debbie for so candidly sharing the personal details of her life feeling very humbled by the experience and thankful for the opportunity to share who Debbie Wright is.

Joan’s Perspective

I asked about looking back, would you change anything? Joan replied, "I never would have considered sending Debbie to MSD (Michigan School for the Deaf in Flint). She needs to be in a hearing world, we are all hearing."

She quickly added, "Do over? I would go to Madonna to learn sign language earlier in life, now I have arthritis and I’m slow."

With all life challenges surmised for Debbie, Joan’s concern for her daughter is felt in saying, "Debbie fits in with the Deaf community, but she does not drive, transportation is an issue."

Clarifying the reason for permanently removing the CI, "We decided to have the CI removed because Debbie was not getting sounds in her ear--only vibrations in her eye."

Joining the FFB and serving as Michigan Chapter President, Joan’s family worked together for a worthy cause. They met lifelong friends, engaged with a community of passionate people with a common goal. Like Debbie, Joan is very hopeful that restoration of vision is coming soon. That would be the tremendous blessing for Debbie.

A Happy Life: Life is a Choice, New Every Day

Debbie and Joan Wright
Debbie with her mother Joan. (Source: Wright Family)

Currently, Debbie serves on the board for Deaf C.A.N. Debbie’s guide dog Pete died a couple years back. Sophie has stepped in as Debbie’s new guide dog, a faithful and constant companion, absolutely a source of joy. She continues to work at Ascension Medical Center - St. John Providence in the medical education department. Sophie joins Debbie on the bus going to work, going wherever she goes. Debbie hears without sound through a small window of vision, the motions and vibrations of life are gathered providing information about the world around her. Joan and Debbie communicate well together as loving moms and daughters do. Joan continues to offer and provide encouragement and support for her daughter.

Thank you so much Debbie for being true to yourself, and for your profound attitude of appreciation for what you do have. Thank you for inspiring the world with your unquenchable thirst for learning and tenaciously pressing in to achieve all that you have. I want to thank you for being open and candid, affording me the privilege to share your story with all people who are Deaf and blind and hearing. An old adage says, it takes a village to raise a child. Together with your mom, the village has learned it takes perseverance and a love for life that never gives up to carry on in spite of the challenge of Usher syndrome and being Deafblind.

Joan began the conversation mom-to-mom telling me about her affiliation with The Foundation Fighting Blindness (FFB) and her hope for her daughter to see, to hear, to communicate. I greatly admire and respect Joan for who she is as a mother who loves her daughter to the moon and back. Thank you Joan for sharing your journey, the trials, the disappointments and the torch of hope you carry to light the way to a brighter future for sons and daughters, for families and the future free from deafness and blindness.

Debbie and Joan are passionate about The Foundation Fighting Blindness (FFB) and encourage anyone interested in being an advocate for the Deafblind to participate in a VisionWalk or support the The Foundation Fighting Blindness (FFB). They are hopeful that a cure for blindness is in sight.


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About the Author

Kathleen MarcathKathleen Marcath has a BA in Deaf Community Studies and is passionate about helping students and families make connections through American Sign Language. Kathleen has the privilege to work with hard of hearing students providing sign language support, building vocabulary, confidence and community. She strives to create an atmosphere that promotes harmony, excellence, exploration and certainly fun. In establishing ASL Educational Services – Making Connections she is helping people tap into their potential and and the hidden potential of American Sign Language. Currently, Kathleen serves as President for the Michigan Chapter of the Foundation Fighting Blindness. If you are interested in creating new possibilities for yourself, your family or your school, Kathleen can be contacted at

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