Jeffrey Yockey’s parents were heartbroken when he was born deaf, even though they were deaf themselves.
“The reason was because they knew the struggle they went through growing up,” Yockey said.
The Nicholson resident is “third generation deaf,” as his grandparents also couldn’t hear.
While the generations before him struggled always depending on others for certain tasks like making phone calls, modern technology has fortunately improved the quality of life for the deaf community.
“With video phones and texting and email and the internet, it’s amazing,” Yockey said. “So really, I feel fortunate nowadays and I don’t see a hardship being deaf.”
Yockey communicates through American Sign Language and has been relaying his knowledge alongside co-teacher David Posner through ASL classes at the Dietrich Theater in Tunkhannock.
The duo began teaching at the Dietrich last summer after approaching the theater’s director, Erica Rogler, about starting classes.
The Dietrich previously offered ASL classes several years ago, according to Rogler, and she received several requests from members of the community to bring it back.
“Some people take ASL classes for their jobs. Others want to better communicate with family and friends,” Rogler said. “Others find that they are losing their own hearing and want to learn another form of communication. These classes are filling a need in these students’ every day lives.”
On Monday night, a class gathered for the first day of ASL II, which builds off ASL I. The Dietrich plans to offer up to ASL IV this summer.
ASL I was an introduction to give some exposure to the language, and ASL II expands on vocabulary, linguistics, and signs and words with multiple meanings.
The class also has a focus on deaf culture.
“If they approach a deaf person, they know how either not to be offended or not offend that person,” Yockey said. “Deaf people tend to be blunt. They’re very direct.”
For example, he said a hearing person might say “I’m going to the powder room,” while a deaf person would say “I’m going to the bathroom” with no euphemisms.
“I want people to realize it’s OK to be direct in deaf culture and sign language,” he said.
Another cultural difference the teachers plan to touch on between deaf and hearing people is pointing.
Hearing people grow up being taught that pointing is rude, but for deaf people, pointing is used to indicate pronouns like “he” or “she” if a person is present.
In their inaugural class last summer, Yockey and Posner were thrilled to see 21 people sign up.
“I was very excited to see that so many people were interested and to see them learn,” Yockey said.
Both had an interest in bringing ASL to an area like Tunkhannock, which may not have the same opportunities for residents as bigger cities. Similarly, they feel excited to offer a class in Towanda this summer.
While Yockey is deaf, Posner is hearing, and they believe students can benefit from having both perspectives in class.
“I learned sign language, so I know what stumbling blocks I had and I try to help the students avoid those, so that’s my hearing perspective,” Posner said. “I was always fascinated with sign language growing up. I think it’s a beautiful language. I wish more people in the country saw the value in being bilingual.”
Overall, they want to give people the confidence to communicate using sign language.
“My goal is to allow hearing people to learn how to communicate with deaf people and not to be afraid to try to communicate with deaf people,” Yockey said.
Gabriella Belt of Tunkhannock wanted to learn ASL to communicate with her younger brother, who is nonverbal.
Belt already took ASL I at the Dietrich and has moved on to ASL II. She was turned on to the courses from her mother, who has reached the fourth level of ASL.
“I’m trying to be able to communicate with him better,” Belt explained. “Right now he’s two, but as he gets older, it’s going to get harder and harder, so I want to be able to talk to him.”
Regardless of knowing someone who communicates through sign language, Belt said everyone should attempt to learn another language, even if they don’t reach complete fluency.
“The deaf and nonverbal are members of our community,” she said. “We should try to accommodate them in any way we can. Any way to make the world easier is a good thing.”
Samantha Irving of Fleetville also started out with ASL I at the Dietrich and learned a great deal.
In high school, Irving remembers having deaf students in her class and wanting to learn how to communicate with them.
“Now being out in the real world, when I see instances of someone in our community that is deaf, it would be nice to reach out and say hi,” she said.
The Dietrich offers ASL courses through September, although prerequisites or prior knowledge of ASL are required for certain courses. However, the theater plans to offer another round of ASL classes this fall.
The Dietrich also offers closed captioning equipment for patrons who are deaf or hearing impaired, Rogler said, and movies on Sundays have open captioning in the second afternoon showing of the day.
For more information, visit dietrichtheater.com.