theGrio’s 100: Carolyn McCaskill, giving black sign language a voice

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Who is Carolyn McCaskill?

Dr. Carolyn McCaskill, 60, is a deaf but her disability has never held her back. Her life is testimony to overcoming discrimination and achieving academic excellence. Born and raised in the deep south in the 1950s, the Alabama native lost her hearing at the age of five.

In 1977, McCaskill graduated from Gallaudet University with a Bachelor’s in Psychology and a minor in Social Work. Two years later, she graduated from the same university with a Master’s in Counseling of the Deaf

She later worked as a counselor in various educational establishments before doing the unthinkable, in the eyes of many. Despite her disadvantage, McCaskill had the self-assurance to pursue a Doctorate degree at Gallaudet, which she received in 2005.

Why is she on theGrio’s 100?

McCaskill, a professor at Gallaudet University’s Deaf Studies department, researched and co-wrote a groundbreaking book that explores the differences between how African-Americans and mainstream groups sign.

In the first empirical study of its kind, McCaskill and a team of researchers explore in The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL and its accompanying DVD, how Black American Sign Language (Black ASL) has evolved and continues to co-exist with American Sign Language (ASL).

What McCaskill and her team unearthed is that Black ASL is a rich signing system that reflects the history of segregation and the influence of spoken black English. African-Americans, for instance, use distinct signs, bigger hand gestures, with more body language.

In interviews, McCaskill said some of her motivation to publish this volume she took from her own personal experiences.

In 1968, when she was 15-years-old, she enrolled in an integrated school for the deaf in Talledega, Alabama. She was shocked to discover the students made hand movements for everyday words that were completely alien to her and the handful of other black deaf students who had joined the program.

McCaskill was forced to learn the new signs. When she went home she switched back to her old way of communicating.

What’s next for McCaskill?

Her next project is to work on a book/DVD focusing on black deaf families in the United States, which will most likely be published in 2014-2015.