Shining through Signing
How would you tell a deaf person there’s a fire?
That was on Lauren Ofman’s mind while she was taking a sign language class in middle school. Especially since the teacher of the class was deaf herself.
The more Lauren thought about it, the more she was intrigued. “I wish I could be a deaf person for a day and just see how they go about their lives. Most deaf people are accustomed to being around hearing people so they figure out how to get by, by pointing or using body language.” But there are so many hidden barriers to communicating.
“For example, if there was a fire at school, how would my teacher know? There was no light or visual signal. Something inside of me was like, this is so wrong.” Deaf people may be thought of as disabled, but Lauren didn’t see it that way at all. As she was learning from the strong deaf community she got to know, they’re proud, dignified, close-knit – and worthy.
Lauren, now 17, knew that if more people knew sign language, more people could communicate. That led her to create a website for learning sign language that anyone can access.
“People can be so isolated in society. One of the ways that you can help them be more integrated is by learning their language and having empathy, connecting on a human level – because we’re all human. Learning sign language is really a small step to something bigger. It’s what drew me to start the Worthy Project.”
Lauren talks about her strong connection with Judaism being an inspiration as well. When she took a class about the Holocaust, she thought of how Jews were seen as disabled, outcasts and a burden on society, and not worthy of living.
That hit very close to home. Her own grandfather narrowly escaped the Holocaust and tragically lost most of his family. The ideas of inclusion and empathy were taking on deeper meaning, the consequences were more far-reaching.
She developed the Worthy Project as a way to break down the barriers. It’s a free online course where camps, schools, or anyone who wants to teach sign language can log on and start to learn immediately. Lauren encourages those who might be hesitant to try. “There are so many signs that you might already know, that you didn’t realize were sign language.”
Lauren shares a unique quality of sign language that makes it fun, especially for visual learners: “One key way to give context to a conversation is through facial expression. I love this because it’s much more of an emotional language where you connect on a deeper level.”
In a culture that’s obsessed with social media “likes” and virtual relationships, it’s refreshing to hear a high school student talk about connecting more deeply and with greater empathy. As Lauren says, it’s a step towards something bigger. And that makes the Worthy Project even more worthy.
Lauren emailed Bais Chana’s Jewish UnCamp as part of her outreach to Jewish summer camps. She’s encouraging camps nationwide to teach sign language using her free online course, https://aslintrocourse.weebly.com
Meet the other remarkable Lights here.