Despite the fact that he can hear, American Sign Language is University of Findlay senior Elijah “EJ” Emmons’ first language, and English his second. The reason: his parents are Deaf, and so are several of his relatives.
Therefore, when he came to UF to play soccer and study strength and conditioning, Emmons wanted to find a local Deaf community to participate in, but that didn’t happen right away. Acclimating wasn’t easy.
“In my first year here, I went three to four months without signing and I felt deprived of my usual mode of conversation,” Emmons said. “I would go home and start talking, and I would go too fast and wouldn’t make any sense.”
He was glad to finally meet Kyle Park at an ASL Club event during his freshman year. Park, who is Deaf and serves as an adjunct ASL instructor, introduced him to social and academic Deaf culture in Findlay, where Emmons fit right in.
Now a senior, Emmons has taken all of the ASL courses offered at the University. Even though he was already fluent in the language, he has learned a lot and his classmates have learned from him. Emmons recalled his first day in an ASL course taught by Leah Brant, instructor of ASL. At the time, he wasn’t sure if he should let his classmates know about his fluency.
“I sat way in the back, trying to stay under the radar. She asked everyone, ‘does anyone know how to sign,’ Emmons explained. “I signed back so no one else would know, ‘Yeah, both my parents are Deaf.’” Emmons feared that his peers would feel resentful or think that he would correct them throughout the course, but that was not the case.
“After that class, I told her about myself, and I was really surprised and happy because she was excited that I was there and had cultural perspective that most students don’t get,” he said. “She’s an interpreter, so she has a different viewpoint. She’s asked me to add extra information as we go and usually I’ll have different variations (of the language) to add.”
According to Brant, the students quickly realized that Emmons simply wanted to sign and share his knowledge, while learning formalities of the language along the way. Now, classmates ask him questions in “open and respectful ways” and are truly interested in what Emmons has to say.
Growing up with deaf family members who are very involved in the Deaf community, Emmons has been able to share his experiences and provide a deeper understanding of the Deaf culture. Emmons and his two siblings, who are also hearing, are called CODAs, which stands for Children of Deaf Adults. Emmons’ Deaf mother came from a family where it was hereditary. His father, Deron Emmons, who presented “Deaf 101” at the University on Nov. 10, became deaf after contracting spinal meningitis when he was a child.
A big part of Emmons’ life for the past 16 years has been KODA Camp. Often times, Emmons is seen sporting a KODA Camp T-shirt on campus. It’s an annual camp started by his father for Kids of Deaf Adults (KODA) where Emmons started as a camper and has served as a camp counselor for five years. The purpose of the camp is to allow KODAs to be around other people like them and to be themselves.
“I went to school thinking that everyone’s parents were deaf, and adults were generally deaf and kids were hearing. When I started to make the connection, I thought it was weird and then I realized that I’m the weird one,” Emmons said. “I didn’t really get bullied, but there are plenty of kids I know from being a KODA camper and counselor that talk about being bullied and picked on for having deaf parents.”
Emmons explained that some deaf parents rely on their hearing kids because they’re a “conduit to communicate with the rest of the world.” At the camp, the KODAs don’t have to sign and they don’t have to talk. They’re encouraged to communicate however they feel comfortable.
At UF, Emmons has been able to talk about the Deaf culture in class as well as at events such as “Travel the Globe,” which is for area high school students to come to campus and learn about different languages and cultures.
“I think it’s silly, but people ask me what deaf people do in their free time. I’m like, ‘everything,’” Emmons laughed. “My dad loves music. He’s been to four or five MC Hammer concerts and a couple others. When he was younger, he loved to dance. He’ll blare music in the car all the time. You turn the bass up all the way and you feel the vibrations and the beat.”
As Emmons completes his senior year, he looks forward to coaching young athletes. He wants to help them develop and achieve their goals, such as playing college sports, like he experienced thanks to coaches. While he continues to take on more responsibility at KODA Camp alongside his older brother, he also hopes to open up a workout facility for people who are deaf or want to be able to sign.
“Growing up, I didn’t see too many deaf people who work out or have the ability to work out with people who are deaf or sign,” Emmons said. “The Deaf community is very tight-knit and it has a very ‘us’ mentality, rather than a ‘me’ mentality. A lot of people don’t even realize that there’s a Deaf community or Deaf culture.”
One of Emmons’ goals is to inform as many people as possible. “I have no shame or embarrassment of having Deaf parents and growing up with this background,” he said. “I’m hoping to contribute back to the community that I grew up in, in some way, shape or form.”