Teaching hands to talk

Teaching hands to talk

If you live in Nova Scotia, Diane Fletcher-Falvey says, you need to know the sign for Tim Hortons

Diane Fletcher-Falvey signing "round" in ASL.



Chelsy Mahar

June 17, 2021, 1:27 pm ADT

Last Updated: June 30, 2021, 3:27 pm

Growing up in Wawa, Ontario, Diane Falvey was like other kids. She often went to Lake Superior, a few kilometres away, to swim and for cottage visits. The township was home to a beautiful nearby beach.

Fletcher-Falvey grew up in a three-bedroom bungalow-styled house with her sister Jennifer and brother David. She grew up deaf. At age twelve she and her friend Katie, who was also deaf, got around on their bicycles. Pedals underfoot, wheels turning, houses passing by. All the while they talked with their hands.

It was near her house that the first stone was thrown.

Sitting down with Katie she was unaware of two boys nearby. The boys hurled small stones directly at them. Friendly chatter was interrupted. She looked at Katie, confused – what was going on?

There was no communication. The boys didn’t speak their language. Why were the boys throwing rocks?

Before she could get an answer, the boys turned and ran back into their house across the street. The question “why?” stuck in her mind. “We recognized after it was discrimination,” Fletcher-Falvey said. “We were talking with our hands.”

The answer, to her, was chocolate. The two young girls went to the store and found the sweetest gift, smooth chocolate wrapped in plastic.

The boys peered from a window as she and Katie bravely approached the door. She wanted to become friends. The boys’ mother opened the door and kindly accepted the chocolate. The boys threw the first stone, but Fletcher-Falvey gave the first gift. The question “why?” again stuck in her mind: why did they take the chocolate bars, when the boys should have been apologizing and making it right?

After the stone throwing, she changed. At restaurants she and Katie used American Sign Language under the table so that others wouldn’t see. They spoke with glances.

She hid her deafness.

Spend enough time with Diane Fletcher-Falvey and you forget she is deaf.

The soft feathers of a bird flutter down to her hand on a beautiful fall day. She is not alone. In Ottawa, she is walking with a friend.

Fletcher-Falvey moved from Nova Scotia to Ottawa in August 2020 to be close to friends. Often these days, like millions of people, she is on Zoom calls, her brown eyes looking through a frame of straightened glasses. Lesson notes are piled on her desk. She started teaching American Sign Language in 1981 and hasn’t stopped. “I love teaching, period,” Fletcher-Falvey says.

She is busy. She was familiar with art all her life, drawing cartoons as a child and later painting landscapes like her mother. She decided to learn more about it, enrolling in the Ottawa School for Art in September 2020. She loves the feel of a scarf on her neck, and wanted to learn the fine techniques useful for silkscreen and printing.

Her art classes are on campus, with masks and social distancing. A student and a teacher, she fits easily into the community. Deaf and hearing students attend the classes together with one focus: art.

Fletcher-Falvey teaches the School for Art staff American Sign Language in the very same classroom.

Boarding school


sign languages

were used in Canada during the 19th century, including British Sign Language, Langue Des Signes Francaise, Langue des Signes Quebecoise (in Quebec), American Sign Language, Maritime Sign Language (in Nova Scotia), Plains Sign Language (used widely by Cree, Dakota and Siksika), Plateau Sign Language (used by Salish), Ktunaxa and Inuit Sign Language. American Sign Language (ASL) was introduced from the United States and eventually became commonly used by deaf Anglophone Canadians.

Diane Falvey’s family spoke one language – English. Reading lips became an essential part of her education at the Ontario School for the Deaf, in Belleville, which she attended from age five to 18. The first time she was brought there she was scared: her parents didn’t tell her where she was going, or say goodbye. She slept in a dorm room of 20 beds, but soon became familiar with the school.

The Ontario School for the Deaf was built in


, and originally called the Ontario Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb. A fence surrounded the campus, which contained a boys’ residence, a girls’ residence, and a school that was tall, proud and imposing. The final stretch of pavement was a circular driveway to drop off arrivals.

The school was her home nine months of the year.

She was all too familiar with her teachers’ backs and with chalk moving furiously across the blackboard. She could only lip-read if she saw their faces. Then she could focus on the subtle movements of their mouths and quirks of their eyes, and take careful notes with her own eyes.

Every morning, as a young student, for 20-30 minutes she was alone with a speech therapist. Headphones covered her ears and the therapist would speak, covering the lips – a test, can you hear? The aim was to measure residual hearing. A sheet of paper fluttered in front of her face, to feel the air coming out of her mouth. “Most of us who were profoundly deaf, it was just a waste of our time,” Fletcher-Falvey said.

She discovered American Sign Language at school, from older deaf students who used it in the dormitories and gym. She joined the chorus of children excitedly getting to know each other by using American Sign Language.

When she was 14 the Ontario School for the Deaf became the Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf. The name was selected to honour a hearing premier of the province. “Deaf students,” Fletcher-Falvey said, “were not happy.” The school was a place for deafness, where they could be themselves unapologetically. “The deaf students were proud of the name the Ontario School for the Deaf.”

She remembers hallways void of sound – a movie without pictures, the lips too far away to read. But she also remembers the flurry of hands – teachers learning American Sign Language in the very same hallways.

Becoming a teacher

Fletcher-Falvey was finishing high school in Wawa when a family friend was due to become a mother. The woman was always nice to Fletcher-Falvey and Katie. She was polite, her smile reflective like the crystal water of the ocean. She adored the two girls and always had candy for them.

The time came for the woman to have a baby. Stacy was born at General Hospital in Wawa. Tears stained her mother’s face.

“What do we do?” she asked. “How do we deal with this?”

Stacy was born deaf.

The woman turned to Fletcher-Falvey for advice. When Stacy was three, Fletcher-Falvey started teaching the family American Sign Language.

She arrived with pictures of objects of a typical family bungalow, the main entrance a living room with a kitchen on one side. A hallway led to bedrooms on the other side. The house was pristine, new.

Stacy’s little eyes watched Fletcher-Falvey attentively. She copied her excitedly, intrigued by the grown-up who talked with her hands. Naturally curious, naturally studious, a toddler exploring a new world. Fletcher-Falvey circled around the bungalow, demonstrating signs for objects and rooms so the parents could teach Stacy her first words.

“Can you come back tomorrow?” they asked often. It was nice to go over there.

She parted ways to become a student herself at York University in Toronto. It was time to let the family continue with their new skills and for her to leave Wawa behind.

She started an English class at York and went to the Canadian Hearing Society, which offers services to deaf and hard of hearing people. Fletcher-Falvey was given an interpreter, an option she never had in boarding school.

“Are you interested in coming as a guest to my ASL class?” the interpreter asked. “Sure, that would be interesting,” Fletcher-Falvey said. A couple weeks later she was at the Canadian Hearing Society to teach.

The building was small but tall inside, the classroom a graceful resting place after the stairs. She entered the board room with students seated in a half-circle.

“Welcome to American Sign Language,” Fletcher-Falvey signed to her class for the first time.

She felt excited and free, filled with a sense of how beautiful it was. American Sign Language was an asset – she could share something.

Enamored with teaching, she continued the classes for six years in her twenties and trained to be a teacher.

In 1990 she left the bustle of Toronto for the fresh saltwater of the coast – Halifax, Nova Scotia. She joined an interpreter training program at Saint Mary’s University for advanced Sign Language Communication. The waterfront, beaches, and quaint old buildings welcomed her.

Fletcher-Falvey kayaking.


Her father was from Great Village, west of Truro, and knew some Maritime Sign Language. She was told this by her grandmother, a quiet and sweet woman. Some of her relatives were deaf and had moved to Amherst and elsewhere.

“If you live in Nova Scotia,” Fletcher-Falvey says, “you need to know the sign for Tim Hortons.” She swiftly brings her right hand to her eye, her thumb and index finger closed together in a circle, the rest of the fingers up. She points to the circle, emphasizing the correct way to make the shape.

She met Michael Falvey in 1990, at a Canadian Curling Competition for the Deaf. Michael Falvey could hear and knew a little American Sign Language. They married in 1991, and at age 32 Fletcher-Falvey had their daughter, Rebecca.

As a daughter, an educator, and now a mother, Fletcher-Falvey wanted to give Rebecca a choice.

“Rebecca, come here,” Fletcher-Falvey said. She would use her voice early on to speak to her daughter. But she also used sign language.

“Do you want to talk back and forth with mommy, or do you want to learn sign language?” Fletcher-Falvey asked.

Rebecca was around five and her answer was clear. “I want to learn sign language.”

Now, Fletcher-Falvey says, she would like to be a grandmother. She doesn’t complain that her daughter is waiting, like she did, for the right time to start a family.

Deaf awareness

At the Atlantic Police Academy near Summerside, PEI, in 1997, Fletcher-Falvey taught a classroom of officers a one-week beginner American Sign Language course. “Training the cops was really for the safety of deaf people,” she said.

Officers need to be able to communicate clearly. For this reason, it is best to handcuff deaf individuals with their hands in front instead of behind their back, so they can still create sign language with their hands.

In pairs of two she had the officers role-play scenarios, and she would observe and comment. She then had them interact with her as the deaf person.

She has also worked with the Toronto Police Service; the Atlantic Provinces Special Education Authority; the Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development; Human Resources and Skills Development Canada and Canada Post, both in Nova Scotia; and hospitals in Nova Scotia and Ontario. “All of those professional frontline workers should have some understanding of deaf culture and sign language,” Fletcher-Falvey said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic she has met with more organizations online.

While she uses American Sign Language, lip-reading is still an integral part of her daily interactions with hearing people in stores, using public transportation and running errands. A

2016 Statistics Canada Census

report found that 2,170 Canadians speak only American Sign Language at home, while 9,295 speak American Sign Language and another language. (The Canadian Association of the Deaf disputes these low numbers, in 2015 estimating that there are 357,000 deaf Canadians.) Of course, protective masks prevent lip-reading.


On November 23, 2020, she was busy teaching in her virtual Zoom classroom. Four hearing students attended the American Sign Language level two class in the comfort of their homes. The women were Dalhousie University students in their 20s and 30s. Most of Fletcher-Falvey’s students find her



Smiling brightly, she adjusts her glasses. Behind her is a grey wall and a glass desk covered with papers. She sits comfortably in the chair, effortlessly taking the role of teacher. The room is virtual, but her presence fills the space.

Prepared, she starts the lesson with a white sheet of paper, bringing it from her desk to the camera. She eagerly leans forward, bringing the paper to the webcam for students to see. Black ink is typed onto the paper with phrases spelled in English, listed 1-10, “Sign language, my mother don’t know,” “Washington, I visit finish,” “My bicycle, Paul, his daughter lose.” The phrases are written with American Sign Language grammar structure.

The class begins like an orchestra, with Fletcher-Falvey the director. She holds one finger up and begins the signs for the first phrase – “Dance, I like.”

The phrase begins by taking a hand and gesturing to yourself. You then hold the dominant hand out like a cup, while the other hand forms two upside-down fingers and swings back and forth. This is the beginning of the phrase.

An integral part of this sign is the facial expression, a smile to show you “like” dance. A pout would change the sign to “hate,” raised eyebrows would change the sign to “dance, you want?” Beside her on the screen are four students are copying in unison.

They are not beginners. Their practice begins with careful handshapes but ends with sweeping motions and natural storytelling. Small nods pass around the room, announcing their comfort with a phrase. They are new to the signs but not the format, using facial expressions as vividly as the teacher.

She shows a number with her finger and waits for them to do the phrase. Blunders in signing are stopped with the tilt of a student’s head and a jovial laugh: let’s try again, it’s okay to make mistakes here. She swiftly corrects handshapes and gestures by replicating the signs when an error is made, smiling with a thumbs-up when it is done correctly.

She cycles through phrases until everyone is using them smoothly. She teaches new words and explains some deaf culture with a combination of signing and using the chat feature.

The class ends with amicable exits, the confidence of signing bestowed on the students, and Diane Fletcher-Falvey proud.

Editor's Note:

This article first appeared in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald.

Chelsy Mahar

A journalism student at the University of King's College and an aspiring poet.