This year marks the centennial of the Yakima Valley Association for the Deaf (YVAD), which was formed in 1919. As has been the case of those who have been involved with this organization throughout the past 100 years, YVAD’s deaf members love their identity, and they love to spend time with others who feel the same way.  

Although I am a hearing person, I’m taking American Sign Language 102 at Yakima Valley College, and I attend deaf events often. I love learning this language, and immersing myself in the culture behind it. I have yet to meet a deaf person who didn’t want to chat with me because I was hearing.

I spoke with Yakima resident Michael Sanders, a deaf man who has attended many deaf community events around the Valley. He informed me that he has many deaf friends as well as many hearing friends. As long as his hearing friends are open-minded to the idea that hearing and deaf people are equal, he feels they can all have a good time together as they broaden each other’s experiences.

Last month, Sanders dressed up as Santa Claus for the Signing Santa Christmas Party that YVAD held Dec. 8 at Yakima’s 72nd Avenue location of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There was a huge holiday potluck meal, pictures and conversations with the signing Santa, and raffles for children’s toys. Deaf kids from the Valley were able to experience the tradition of relaying to Santa what they want for Christmas, by communicating in what is their first language. Many YVAD members showed up, joined by local hearing ASL enthusiasts. About a dozen children were there to visit with Santa, resulting in a successful event that involved 50 to 100 attendees.

Every Friday, YVAD hosts a Deaf Coffee event at a local Starbucks. As advertised on the YVAD Facebook site, the location of these weekly gatherings rotates on a schedule that includes three Starbucks shops in Yakima plus one in Ellensburg.

These coffee shops allow all members of the YVAD to meet and catch up, and opportunities for any other signers who wish to join. I’ve attended a few, and it’s truly extraordinary. There’s always someone new to sign with, and there’s never a shortage of stories. Depending on the week, there’s generally a large amount of people there, more deaf than hearing people. YVC’s ASL Club, which is comprises of hearing ASL students, regularly attends these gatherings as well.

During my first quarter of ASL, I was required to go to a Deaf Coffee event for class. And I was terrified; I thought I didn’t know anywhere near enough sign language to do well. I soon learned, though, that one’s proficiency in sign language is not indicative of successfully being a part of what goes on at Deaf Coffee. I introduced myself as a “baby signer,” finger-spelled words I didn’t know, and asked for help when I needed it. Everyone I communicate with there is so eager to help me learn, and are patient with me when I trip over my fingers.

A few months ago, I met Zillah resident Tyler Disney at Deaf Coffee. During our signing, he was the one to give me my name sign, which I now proudly tell everyone I sign with. When introducing yourself in sign language, you finger-spell your name. A deaf person can give you a name sign later on, but you can’t give one to yourself or have a hearing friend make one up. It’s one of my favorite practices in the deaf community. Often times, a name sign will be your first initial, and a prominent physical trait. Mine is the sign for “K,” tilted to connect the end of my lips to my cheekbone, and shaken a few times. This is because the first thing Disney noticed about me was my smile.

Disney has been coming to deaf events here for a long time. He recalls his first event being back in 1988, when he was around 10. He remembers many details about that significant event because it involved an introduction to something called Telecaption II. This was a program made by AT&T that was designed to supply TVs with captioning for deaf viewers. The Telecaption II is no longer in use today, as televisions and channels supply this on their own.

Technologically speaking, many advances have been made to be more inclusive of the deaf community. There is now a “Signing Starbucks” in Washington, D.C., that opened late last year. This is a fully functioning Starbucks in which communication is done entirely through ASL. Deaf members in today’s society can also use Video Relay Service, which translates phone calls into sign language while calls are happening. Deaf people are being included in many more ways than they once were, allowing them an environment they feel comfortable in more often.

It’s hard to open yourself up to a new community. There’s a sense of vulnerability that you may not be accepted, but the deaf community here in Yakima isn’t like that. If you go to a deaf event in town with basic signing skills, an open mind and a smile, chances are you’ll learn new signs, make new friends, and have a unique experience you’ll never forget. The YVAD Facebook page is updated with current events, meetings, and more, with all the information you need. They’re always happy to see new faces.

Karlee Van De Venter is a senior at Eisenhower High School who is a Running Start student at Yakima Valley College.