Manitoba

Denied the right to communicate: Deaf Manitoban remembers being punished for signing

Imagine living in a silent world and then being punished for communicating in the only way you knew how.

Rick Zimmer shares powerful story at Canadian Museum for Human Rights event marking 200 years of ASL

Rick Zimmer interacts with visitors at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights after sharing his story Wednesday. (Canadian Museum for Human Rights)

Imagine living in a silent world, and then being punished for communicating in the only way you knew how. As a deaf child, that's what happened to Rick Zimmer.

"I remember growing up and people kind of discriminating against us," Zimmer, 59, said.

Zimmer, who co-ordinates a deaf studies program at Red River College in Winnipeg, says as a child, he was hit on the hand with a wooden ruler while in school for using American Sign Language.

That language was created 200 years ago this year, and Zimmer shared part of his story at an event Wednesday at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights to commemorate the anniversary.

Zimmer is the youngest in a large family with four deaf siblings and said he felt confused and frightened to use the language he grew up with at home because of the ban teachers had on it at school.

'Embarrassed by our signs'

"We signed very small. We were embarrassed by our signs and so it wasn't treated very well," Zimmer said.

Eventually, progress was made and in 1988, the Manitoba School for the Deaf started accepting American Sign Language as a language of instruction — a significant step in the right direction, Zimmer said.

Decades later, though, Zimmer feels there's still more work to do.

For one, he says it's wrong to think a deaf person is missing out on something because they can't hear.

"Really, we just augment things through our eyes to our brain," he said.

Zimmer has big dreams for the Manitoba education system — one day, he wants to see American Sign Language incorporated into the provincial curriculum for Kindergarten to Grade 12.

"I just really want the public to see American Sign Language and recognize ASL is a bona fide language."