When Cathi Blickenstaff and Erin Rachford met for the first time at a youth retreat, they had a hard time communicating. That’s because Blickenstaff is deaf and Rachford didn’t know sign language. Rachford took American Sign Language classes and then started accompanying Blickenstaff to informal Monday night restaurant dinners known as “Silent Suppers” or “Deaf Dinners.” The 5 p.m. get-togethers, held weekly at various Springfield eateries, provide opportunities to improve sign language skills and to socialize.

When Cathi Blickenstaff and Erin Rachford met for the first time at a youth retreat, they had a hard time communicating. That’s because Blickenstaff is deaf and Rachford didn’t know sign language.

“Cathi sparked my interest in signing,” said Rachford, a nurse at St. John’s Hospital who sometimes deals with patients who cannot hear.

She took American Sign Language classes and then started accompanying Blickenstaff to informal Monday night restaurant dinners known as “Silent Suppers” or “Deaf Dinners.”

The 5 p.m. get-togethers, held weekly at various Springfield eateries, provide opportunities to improve sign language skills and to socialize.

“Hearing people are welcome to join, and it’s good for those who are learning to know how to use sign language to communicate with the deaf at a comfortable level,” said Pat Gurley, a state employee who hosts the dinners with Blickenstaff.

“Sometimes we have people coming in from Jacksonville and Decatur. Even some college students who are home on breaks join us,” she said.

Attendance ranges from 10 to 30 per week. The suppers, which last about two hours, alternate between restaurants on the east and west sides of towns. Good lighting and long tables allow diners to see each other, encouraging interaction.

Silent Suppers started in November 2000, when a deaf person was going through a personal crisis and wanted to meet regularly with other deaf people.

“After a conversation at a movie theater where we watched an open-captioned movie, a few friends thought it was a good idea and decided to start the concept of having a Deaf Dinner,” Gurley said. “This concept is gaining popularity in other deaf communities throughout the state
and country as well.”

Don Witty, a retired state employee, used to teach sign language classes at the Springfield Center for Independent Living.

“You know, there are hearing groups that go out after work. This is the same. I like that it’s really helped the communication to improve.”

Witty says there are various reasons hearing people are motivated to learn sign language — they might have family members or friends with a hearing loss, or they might have a job, such as in a hospital, where sign language is useful.

He estimated it takes 5 to 8 years for a hearing person to become highly skilled in American Sign Language. Children, he said, are difficult to teach because “they’re always looking around.”

According to the Bethesda, Md.-based National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, age is critical when it comes to learning to sign, whether it is a first or second language. Exposure should come as early as possible, preferably before school age, to become fully competent.

The institute says native signers consistently display more accomplished sign-language ability than those who learn it later in life.

“It makes me happy to have hearing people use sign language,” Witty said.

Topics at recent Silent Suppers ranged from the dearth of real-time captioning on local TV weather reports to legislation that would require insurance companies to pay for hearing aids.

The get-togethers also provide a forum to vent frustration.

“Deaf people can do anything. We’re not handicapped. I can do anything,” said Leon Debriendt of Moline, who attended a supper while in Springfield on business. “People have a lot of stereotypes. They think deaf people are all the same.”

“We live in a hearing world and we want the same things, but we’re always behind. We’re always trying to catch up,” said Marion Dramin, outreach manager for the Illinois Telecommunications Access Corp. The organization provides TTYs (teletypewriters) and videophones for the deaf.

Dramin has four generations of deafness in her family, from her parents to two of her grandchildren.

She grew up reading lips and learned sign language when she got married. She said it’s easier for her deaf grandchildren to communicate than it was for her or her parents.

“We have more equality now. The world has opened up to us. My mother is 99, and she uses the videophone every day. She loves it. We have TTYs and pagers,” Dramin said.

“Computers allow deaf people to be equal with access to communication. We can communicate and no one would ever know we’re deaf,” she added.

Lori Thompson can hear, but she was prompted to learn sign language so she could communicate with a friend who lives in Jacksonville. Thompson, a library cataloger at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, has been attending the Springfield Silent Suppers for three years.

“I came to improve my communication skills. Now I come to see my friends,” she said.

There’s also a “Deaf Coffee,” a group that meets at 6 p.m. the first Thursday of each month. The location is Panera Bread, and it alternates between the Dirksen Parkway and West White Oaks Drive locations. Drop-ins are welcome.

Like Silent Suppers, Deaf Coffees provide a chance to see friends and practice signing.

“I have three cousins who are hard-of-hearing,” said Rachel Cowle-Healy, a pastor and former teacher of the deaf who runs the group.

Blickenstaff and Rachford get together to chat each Monday at the Silent Suppers. Sitting across from each other, they sign and frequently laugh.

“She’s gotten much better at this,” Blickenstaff said. “It’s so much easier now.”

Kathryn Rem can be reached at (217) 788-1520 or kathryn.rem@sj-r.com.

Getting in touch

Silent Suppers: e-mail silentsupper@gmail.com Deaf Coffees: e-mail Rachel Cowle-Healy at info@deafcellchurch.org

Facts about hearing loss

More than 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents. Fifteen percent of children between 6 and 19 have a measurable hearing loss in at least one ear. Hearing loss occurs in five out of every 1,000 newborns. Just 16 percent of doctors routinely screen for hearing loss. Exposure to a noisy subway or similar loud noise for 15 minutes a day can cause permanent damage to hearing over time. “Speechreading” is the more current word for “lipreading.”

Source: Center for Hearing and Communication, a New York nonprofit hearing-rehabilitation agency

By the numbers

According to the Deafness Research Foundation, a New York voluntary health organization, more than 37 million adults and 1 million children in the U.S. have some degree of hearing loss. Of those, 55 percent are male and 45 percent are female. Some 8.4 million people with hearing loss are between the ages of 18 and 44; 14.3 million are aged 45 to 64 years; 6 million fall between ages 65 to 74; and 8.3 million are 75 years and older.

Who offers American Sign Language classes?

MacMurray College in Jacksonville. (Classes in signing and interpreter training.) Call academic affairs at (217) 479-7016. Springfield Center for Independent Living, 330 South Grand Ave. W. (No classes this summer.) Call (217) 523-2587 (voice and TTY). Lawrence Adult Education Center, 101 E. Laurel St. (No classes this summer.) Call (217) 525-3144. Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield. (No noncredit classes this summer.) Call (217) 786-2200 (voice) or (217) 786-2798 (TTY).

What is American Sign Language?

ASL is a complex visual language that encompasses hand shape and position, facial expressions and body movements. It is used by both deaf and hearing people, and is said to be the fourth most commonly use language in the U.S.

Is it a universal language?

No. It has its own rules of grammar, punctuation and sentence order and, like all languages, grows and changes with the times. But American Sign Language, which may have evolved from French Sign Language, is primarily used in the U.S. and Canada. Other countries have their own versions.

How are facial expressions used?

When asking a question, for example, signers may raise the eyebrows and wide the eyes. Sometimes, they may ask a question by tilting their bodies forward while signaling with their eyes and eyebrows.

What is fingerspelling?

There is a hand sign for each letter of the alphabet. Spelling out words, or fingerspelling, is usually reserved for proper nouns, for clarity, for instruction and for emphasis.

Where can I get more information about American Sign Language?

Contact the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (one of the National Institutes of Health) at nidcdinfo@nidcd.nih.gov, or by calling (800) 241-1044 (voice) or (800) 241-1055 (TTY).