After a childhood illness left her both deaf and blind, Helen Keller learned to communicate using sign language. She went on to become the first deaf and blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree from a college.

She also became a successful author and political activist. Her life story has been an inspiration to millions of people around the world.

Try to imagine what it would be like if you could not hear the sounds in the world around you. Now, think about what life would be like if you were either born deaf or became deaf at a very early age. The inability to hear would also probably affect your ability to speak.

You may have noticed that many deaf people use sign language to communicate, even though there is nothing wrong with their vocal cords. Although it is possible for deaf people to speak and many learn to speak quite well, it can still be very difficult. For those who have never heard sounds, it can be extremely hard to learn how to make meaningful sounds of their own.

Many deaf people prefer to communicate via sign language. Sign language is a unique language all its own.

For example, many people are surprised to learn that American Sign Language is quite different from British Sign Language, even though the United States and Great Britain share English as a common speaking language. American Sign Language has its own rules of grammar that are different from any other spoken language, including English.

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet helped to develop American Sign Language from a combination of Old French Sign Language and a sign language that had been developed by a deaf community from Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. While American Sign Language and British Sign Language are almost entirely different, American Sign Language and modern French Sign Language have almost 60 percent of their signs in common.

Since the beginning of time, families with deaf children have developed their own forms of sign language to communicate basic ideas. Even people with normal hearing often use hand signs for various ideas.

Do you use any signs regularly? Maybe a “thumbs up" to mean “yes"? Or a flat palm to mean “stop"?

Although such gestures are widely used by those who can hear, American Sign Language goes way beyond simple gestures. In fact, learning sign language is not always easy since most signs have no obvious connection to their meaning.

American Sign Language is both a manual and a visual language. Information is communicated by the shape and movement of the hands and other parts of the body, along with facial expressions. It continues to grow, adding new signs for new words each year.

Some signs convey the meaning of individual words or even short phrases. Some names or words that do not have their own signs must be spelled out using finger spelling. When finger spelling, a person makes the sign for each individual letter to spell out a name or word.

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