Deaf Va. couple teaches neighbors sign language to break communication barrier

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 15, 2010

Ashby Ponds is a fabulous place to live, if you can hear what's going on.

The retirement community in Ashburn has restaurants, a putting green, a pool and spas. There is more activity going on than one person could possibly take advantage of: 70 resident-run games, clubs and groups, from Mexican dominoes to tai chi and Wii bowling. Mostly, though, the 520 residents at Ashby like to hang out and enjoy fellowship.

"People eat together, meet, and sit around and talk," said Evelyn Christian, who moved to Ashby with her husband, William, in July.

The Christians are deaf.

"People here are very nice and friendly," she said. "But we couldn't join in. We started to realize that we were a little bit isolated."

To break the communication barrier, Evelyn and William, whose nicknames are Eve and Leroy, decided to teach Ashby sign language. With the help of Esther Schaeffer, a family friend who serves as an interpreter, the Christians have started a sign language class, which filled up rapidly.

"It's easy to see that people were like: 'Oh, they are deaf. What do we do?' " William Christian said. "It was easy to see that I would be sitting around watching TV and people would be talking around me. It is a blessing having a class where people could become more involved and more open. They want to talk to us."

Eve Christian, 79, grew up in the Shenandoah Valley town of Buena Vista. She became deaf at 6 after a bout with spinal meningitis. "I went to bed one night with a high fever and woke up hearing no sound," she said. "I am profoundly deaf. I hear no sound."

At school, she had trouble following the lessons. With no money for private school, her parents enrolled her in the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind in Staunton. She arrived with no idea of what sign language was.

"Children were moving their hands all over the place," she said. "Eventually, I picked it up, and it became my language."

William Christian, 82, arrived at the school as a 13 year old. His family had a history of deafness on his father's side. He said he also had difficulties in school because of his deafness. The two met when they were competing in an election for secretary of the literary society. She won.

He went on to Gallaudet University. She followed. The Christians married in 1950. William took a job at the U.S. Geological Survey as a mapmaker. Evelyn eventually joined him at the agency in the 1960s.

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