Updated: Feb 22
Ben Wagenknecht teaches American Sign Language classes for DeafConnect. Our ASL classes are virtual, so we asked Ben to share a little about himself so we can all get to know him better. Here’s his story:
I was born in Colombia, South America, and at the age of 3, I was adopted by a wonderful couple from Massachusetts. My adoptive parents told me that at the time I was adopted, I was already deaf, but they did not know if I was born that way. I was one of eight children and, because of financial hardship, the younger children were put up for adoption. I am very thankful that I was still adopted after my parents were told of my deafness.
Right away, my parents learned sign language, but then discovered I did not know any at all. Communication was very difficult, but my parents made every effort to help me learn basic sign language and remained attentive always to what I was trying to say. Even their biological son learned to communicate by sign language with me, so the new family worked out well.
I graduated from The Learning Center for the Deaf High School in Massachusetts in 1992. I then decided to attend Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., graduating in 1998 with a BA in Social Work. Later on, I completed my college education at the University of North Texas, where I finished graduate school with Cum Laude Honors in 2008 with a Master’s Degree in Rehabilitation.
I worked as a direct care counselor for four years at the Family Services Foundation in Maryland. Then I moved to Mississippi and met a person who had a major influence on me – Rell Webber, former VR State Coordinator for the Deaf, who helped me in my efforts to become a Rehabilitation Counselor for the Deaf. I began my vocational rehabilitation career at Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services in Starkville, where I worked for about two years, and then transferred to Olive Branch. After six months there, I was promoted to Director of the Office on Deaf and Hard of Hearing, which is a division of MDRS.
Hobbies – and the great joy
My hobbies are sports – basketball, baseball, football, lacrosse, tennis, juggling and many more – reading books and trying new things that life offers. My one of the most joyous is my son, Bailey.
Growing up, I always have enjoyed helping people in any way I can. Many times there have been people who wanted to learn ASL to communicate with their children, friends, and maybe employees. I started teaching when a neighborhood kid wanted to learn ASL. Since then, I have been helping with ASL formally/informally on and off. Then a wonderful person, Mary Gill (DeafConnect’s staff interpreter), who has been amazing to the d/Deaf community, was very generous and thought I would be a good teacher for an ASL class. It is honor to do it at her recommendation. Furthermore, I am deeply grateful to DeafConnect in Memphis for giving me this opportunity.
Why learn ASL?
People want to learn ASL to communicate with others in various settings, from informal to family to professional. People want to communicate with neighbors, at school, at work – just about everywhere. Many times, at the beginning people see ASL as beautiful language. But soon they realize that it is not just a beautiful language, but also a deeply valuable true language, just like any other language.
Tips for learning ASL
How quickly someone can learn ASL depends on the individual, resources and locations. It depends largely on the individual’s motives and willingness to learn ASL. Some will just take their time, which means it will take longer to learn ASL. If an individual decides to immerse themselves in the d/Deaf culture, they will learn faster. The number one tip in learning faster is to mingle frequently with people who are Deaf because ASL is a visual and memorizing language. Most foreign languages are not visual languages. With other languages, people have to memorize vocabularies. As with learning any language, if you want to learn faster, you should mingle with people who speak that language. With ASL, keep on mingling with d/Deaf and hard of hearing people to maintain the ASL skills or to develop a larger signing vocabulary. It’s important to study ASL and how use it appropriately. Some places don’t have many resources in the form of deaf people living in the area, so I understand that can be a challenge. There are three top ways to learn faster: mingle, practice and stay motivated. For some people, it comes more naturally. Some people just have it, especially those who have a fondness for a language. They process the language easier. But the whole point is everyone can learn with willingness, patience and effort.
What about all those Deaf people in movies and commercials?
With all the representation of the d/Deaf in the latest movies, commercials and ASL interpreters (even with CDI interpreters), I think awareness and acceptance are growing. There are better attitudes toward the Deaf in public places and among people in general. We as deaf people are easily overlooked. We are very small in the number. Therefore, when we get on the big stage, it gives us more exposure and more recognition of our accessibility and accommodation needs. The changes are not on a large scale, but it has definitely gotten some attention as companies, businesses and places are beginning to provide accessibility and accommodation necessities. It is definitely considerably better, and it has the potential to get even better. For example, auto-generated closed captioning is good, but not very accurate in some videos. New technology can make closed captioning even better compared to the old bulky closed caption machine. Emergency alerts have gotten much better. There’s still work to do, but much has improved in locating the area of emergency and in contacting a 911 dispatcher. Changes like these will continue to make it better and easier for the d/Deaf and hard of hearing to be part of the society.