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‘Deaf Coffee Chat’ provides practice and valued social hour

‘Deaf Coffee Chat’ provides practice and valued social hour

Graduate prep Kael Calles, applied behavior analysis junior Courtney Huckaby and psychology junior Esmeralda Valazquez practice their ASL at the monthly Deaf Chat at Zera Coffee. Matthew Brown | Senior Staff Photographer

‘Deaf Coffee Chat’ provides practice and valued social hour
October 22
13:14 2015

Matt Payne | Senior Staff Writer

@MattePaper

Several minutes would pass without a spoken word, but sudden, clamoring laughter erupted from the corners of Zera Coffee Company at random intervals as the clusters of groups dotting the spacious locale on Saturday, Oct. 17 wove tales together with their hands in amicable chat with each other.

 More experienced members of the Deaf Chat are able to share jokes and tell detailed stories without uttering a word. Matthew Brown | Senior Staff Photographer

More experienced members of the Deaf Chat are able to share jokes and tell detailed stories without uttering a word. Matthew Brown | Senior Staff Photographer

“This is just a casual way for people to make friends over a cup of coffee,” TWU American Sign Language professor Chad Smith said. “Even if we see you make a mistake in your signing, it’s just chatting.”

On every third Saturday of the month since 2009, Smith, alongside UNT ASL professor Dori Reeves, has hosted “Deaf Coffee Chat” at Zera, which is an extension of several deaf chats held informally nationwide. The two instructors encourage their students to attend not only for the extracurricular practice, but also in order to maintain an authentic, warm atmosphere for the deaf individuals who frequently attend.

The Denton-specific chat was originally held at the Starbucks located on Loop 288, but when the store’s manager could no longer maintain the monthly meet-up, Smith took charge of the organization and began to host it at Zera in favor of the hospitable atmosphere and sheer amount of space available.

“A big part of why I love this is because there’s no administration involved,” Smith said. “[It’s] two friendly people working together just because they can.”

“Deaf Coffee Chat” is organized without either UNT or TWU involvement, but the lack of administration aid means the entirety of the chat’s continuance relies on Smith and Reeves.

With more than 240 students enrolled in her ASL courses, maintaining “Deaf Coffee Chat” is taxing for Reeves, but she said it is also vitally important to the local deaf community and her students alike.

“We’ll even be here through the winter break and other holidays for those who always come in, fear that they’ll show up and nobody will be here. This is their social hour,” Reeves said. “It’s quite beneficial for them, and the students who come become quite comfortable with signing and can go help people in the real world.”

The two instructors have seen some people attend their chats consistently but typically have new faces join the fray every session. Smith attributes these spontaneous visits to the proximity of the coffee shop to I-35, as travelers en route to various destinations often stop by. He recalled a visit from a waitress who happened to work at Crepe Crazy, a restaurant in Austin run by an entirely deaf staff.

Graduate prep Kael Calles signs to another member of the local Deaf Chat at Zera Coffee. Students get a chance to practice American sign language and have the chance to sign with hearing impaired members on every third Saturday of the month. Matthew Brown | Senior Staff Photographer

Graduate prep Kael Calles signs to another member of the local Deaf Chat at Zera Coffee. Students get a chance to practice American sign language and have the chance to sign with hearing impaired members on every third Saturday of the month. Matthew Brown | Senior Staff Photographer

“Funny that somebody who had a connection in that way stopped by. I also remember one time, we even had a FedEx worker come in. He was so huge, you’d think he was a WWE wrestler,” Smith said. “There’s such a mix of people who make their way through.”

From an academic perspective, Reeves is also motivated to maintain “Deaf Coffee Chat” because of the distinct lack of a laboratory extension for ASL courses during the 16 years she has been teaching at UNT.

“We’ve really found that when students practice with no voice for two hours, it really benefits their skill, especially without a proper lab offered by UNT—for reasons I don’t really know,” Reeves said. “They come here, aren’t allowed to speak for four hours and are constantly signing.”

Zera volunteer Kirk Meynig, recently hired onto the staff, immediately discerned high enthusiasm and an assertive presence from the deaf who joined the evening’s chat when he experienced it for the first time.

“They’ll point at items on the menu, we’ll help them just like anybody else and then they’ll fall into their respective groups,” Meynig said.

Post Baccalaureate Kael Calles signs during the Deaf Chat meet up at Zera coffee Saturday night. Students get a chance to practice American sign language and have the chance to sign with hearing impaired members on every third Saturday of the month. Matthew Brown | Senior Staff Photographer

Kael Calles signs during the Deaf Chat meet up at Zera coffee Saturday night. Matthew Brown | Senior Staff Photographer

Meynig was struck by how welcoming Zera’s crowds were of the group in spite of its silence and large member count.

“It’s like clockwork, and although it’s silent, you can tell it’s high-energy,” Meynig said. “Compared to things that go on in places like Starbucks, this is far more personable.”

Throughout the years they have maintained “Deaf Coffee Chat,” Smith and Reeves have noticed a strong demeanor in the deaf community who frequent the chats. The instructors said that they will deliberately mention qualities typically discerned as offensive, such as comments on weight and appearance, with no intention of offending. They are unabashedly honest, Reeves said.

“They are proud to be deaf, and with signing, there comes several small nuances and a new way of thinking,” Reeves said “They don’t have the same social norms we do, and are unafraid to let you know something that crosses their mind.”

Featured Image: Kael Calles, applied behavior analysis junior Courtney Huckaby and psychology junior Esmeralda Valazquez practice their ASL at the monthly Deaf Chat at Zera Coffee. Matthew Brown | Senior Staff Photographer

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