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The History of the Silent Weekend Event
Soon after starting to teach American Sign Language back in 1980, I realized that our students were not getting sufficient time to use the new language, and certainly not enough time to practice their skills with native deaf signers. The answer was to somehow create a situation in which the students were immersed in the language and community for an extended period of time.
The solution? "Let's go camping!" The initial outing was back in the summer of 1981 when 17 students and invited members of the local Deaf community headed to Hocking Hills State Park. The basic rules of that first outing were still in effect as we recently marked the 20 year anniversary at the 80th edition of the Silent Weekend. These "rules" are: enjoy yourself doing all the traditional camping activities, meet new people, make new friends, but DON'T TALK!
Only visual means of communication are permitted. Gesturing, fingerspelling, writing notes, even using word processors and laptop computers are some of the many visual modalities that have been used along with, of course, American Sign Language. In the process students not only gain valuable experience with the language and interact with native signers, but also build a sense of "family" which is so much a part of the Deaf community. The positive impact on students has been tremendous.
Three times each year, instructors, students, and guests from the Deaf community have a chance to participate in a Silent Weekend usually held at one of Ohio's state parks.
We do not want the hearing participant's to "pretend" to be deaf, but to simply immerse themselves in a different mode of communicating, behaving and in fact, thinking. Participants have the unique opportunity to hear what other hearing people around them say about "those deaf people." It is often an eye-opening experience to realize how misinformed people are and what myths about deafness are still present in the larger hearing community.
The Silent Weekend activities continue until Sunday morning when we have a group meeting. This meeting starts with the traditional countdown to "voices back!" This is often a point of great relief for many students who have rarely spent more than an hour or two in "silent mode!"
The remainder of the meeting is spent looking back on the events of the weekend, and with participants sharing their experiences, revelations, and impressions of the experience. For many students this is the first time they have had a real sense of what Deaf people experience in their daily life. One typical observation heard at these meetings is "I've never spent so much time in a situation where the main sound is laughter!" A similar comment came at a recent outing from a park ranger who led us on a hike; he said that it had been the most peaceful hike he'd ever taken with a group.
The Silent Weekend has traveled all over Ohio...from Lake Erie to Cincinnati and several sites in between. Attendance is consistently between 100 and 130, with people being turned away from some of the events where numbers are limited by the campground. The majority of attendees are students in the Interpreting/ASL Education Program at CSCC, but participation and support from members of the local Deaf community help make the experience a success. We've had people from as far away as Colorado, Florida, Canada, and even Russia in attendance.