Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby Magazine
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• Derby Super Foods
• Low Back Pain and Derby
• Goal Setting
• Traveling Light for Derby
• Running a Functioning Organization
• Deaf Skaters
• Plus more, including Yoga for Derby Girls, Tips on Checking Your Gear, Team Vagine Regime, WFTDA’s New Division Playoff Structure
Pain Eyre, Border city brawlers
I know this one. The sign for “W.” tap chin. We’re moving through the flash cards quickly and my handwriting is sloping down the worksheet. I’ll be lucky to be able to read it tomorrow. “Hop?” Is that what I wrote? Like jump? Two fingers springing from a flat palm. But this says – “Help.” Right. Stormy raises a flash card and the room gestures wildly. What reminder did I write for “fast?” “Fast” is – I know slow (right hand moves up back of left hand), and attendance (the sign for “d,” tap between spread fingers of the other hand) but not fast. No one’s got it yet. Stormy points to the bristol board at the front of the room. Photos show Paulapalooza and Kim Bash acting out each sign. FAST: Bash makes the “d” sign with both hands, bending fingers toward her in the next shot. That’s it.
What’s the sign for “hot?” One of the fresh meat fans herself with her workbook. Twenty or so of us are crammed into a little community center, ten in white scrimmage shirts on one side of the room and ten in black on the other side. Stormy stands at the front of the room with a stack of flash cards. Which team can remember the most signs? The skaters may be at home, but our teams are just as competitive today. She pulls the card for “jammer” and every person in the room rushes to tap the side of her head.
Since 9 am this morning, the Border City Brawlers roller derby league has been learning about Deaf culture and American Sign Language (ASL) from one of our skaters, Stormy. She’s brought several friends, local Deaf educators, and members of the Deaf community, as well as interpreters, to speak to us about Deaf culture, common misconceptions, and some basic ASL to get everyone communicating. After a quiz, (no, Deaf people do not get parking privileges, and yes, most Deaf people are born to hearing parents), a potluck lunch, and a talk about the art of interpreting, we moved on to learning a few signs for the derby track.
When Stormy joined the league over a year ago, I knew absolutely no ASL. I learned the alphabet when I was ten or eleven in what became a failed attempt to teach myself sign language. While a few letters still clung on in my brain, I was hopeless. One of our skaters had grown up with a Deaf friend and knew some ASL, so she was able to help interpret to some degree. As for me, my communication with Stormy was limited to gestures and awkward smiles, my lack of signing skills getting in the way. “You were all scared of me, I think,” Stormy told me later. A new skater with the league. A Deaf skater. How were we going to communicate? Sure, me and Stormy could skate with one another, build walls, block, do drills, but I wanted more than that. I felt a closeness with the rest of my league, and I wasn’t going to let my inability to sign get in the way of me forming bonds with Stormy. We chatted online and I asked her about learning some ASL. Was there any book she recommended? I was a mess at finger spelling, but I was a mess on skates when I joined derby and that never stopped me.
After practice one night, I logged onto a site that Stormy had sent me and started with lesson one: the alphabet. At least if I learned the alphabet, I could finger spell the words I didn’t know and learn the signs as I went along. I googled Deaf roller derby and discovered that there were Deaf skaters around the world. There were specific signs the Deaf derby community had created for words like jammer and pivot (both of which mimic the insignia on the helmet panties). I went over my ABCs more than a three-year-old and read about Deaf derby until my eyes went buggy from the computer screen.
At the next practice, I showed up nervous about my new letters. When Stormy walked into our warehouse with her gear bag I waved. H-O-W, I finger spelled tentatively, and then pointed at Stormy. She smiled. Finger spelled H-O-W back to me and then made the sign for the word. I repeated. G-O-O-D she spelled, and then signed it. How are you? Good. Over the next few practices my hand got a little more comfortable forming the letters but I still confused P with Q, and mixed up M, N and T. At home, I was learning the first 100 signs, but finding it hard to fit in “cat” and “bird” at practice. Stormy, however, was super patient, figuring out what my confused finger spelling was supposed to mean and showing me each sign slowly and repeatedly until I nailed it. One practice I turned up and fumbled through, “I’m learning to sign, slowly,” but most frequently I just signed “thank you” for all the new words she taught me.
A few other skaters in the league started picking up signs: black (“d” dragged across the forehead), and white (like pulling an invisible shirt away from your chest) helped for scrimmages. Some took to their computers and libraries to learn the alphabet. But the process wasn’t easy. With limited people learning limited signs, the communication barriers still existed. A skater who could finger spell and knew a few words would frantically try to interpret the coach’s spoken directions or the vote for tank tops versus t-shirts for the next bout. With limited vocabulary on the part of the hearing skaters, and no interpreter available for practices, it was difficult and often frustrating for Stormy, whose skating skills were stellar, but sometimes found herself missing important details of drills and strategy. “Deaf people hear with our eyes,” Stormy said, showing our league the truth in this statement with every practice on the derby track. Stormy learned derby by watching: watching drills, watching coaches, watching videos online. She taught our hearing skaters how to be better watchers, as well. No jammer can sneak up on a pack with Stormy blocking. Good derby skaters always look behind them. Where are the jammers? What are the other blockers doing? Stormy constantly watches all around her, communicating with her teammates through touch as well as sound. Still, with hearing skaters chattering all around, nuances of conversations, jokes, casual comments and suggestions slipped by without interpretation. Zebras and officials blew whistles to start jams and drills, sometimes forgetting the need for an accompanying hand signal. Skaters screamed “jammer inside” instead of giving a touch to the thigh or a point in the right direction. Stormy described feeling stuck, being forgotten, and not knowing what to do.
Today, Stormy skates on a home team, and can be seen at practice helping fresh meat and vets alike with their stance, technique, blocking, and confidence. While Stormy admits new skaters sometimes start off intimidated by her, a strong blocker, a Deaf skater, and someone they are unsure they can communicate with, her patience quickly shows them what a great teacher she is, on and off the track. In the ASL learning process, Stormy is the best resource our league could possibly ask for. While interpretation at bouts and meetings is certainly a step in the right direction, all of our hearing members will need to commit to learning to communicate if we want our league to be truly accessible, on and off the track, as skaters, officials, coaches, and of course, as friends. Like our fresh meat skaters, stumbling through their strides and stops, we are ASL fresh meat, and learning will take all the time and passion that derby does; just like the feeling of nailing that first hip check or hitting your 25 in 5, every communication milestone will be more than worth it.