Silent Dinners

Gathering over a shared meal creates a sense of inclusion and camaraderie for the Bay-area’s deaf community.

People enjoying a silent dinner at the Bluegill in Mobile, Al.
Fred Miller, case manager, Paul Pituk, job developer and Daniel Wilson. Photos by Chad Riley. Shot on location at The Bluegill Restaurant.

Chargrilled oysters sizzle on the platter, infusing the room with the smell of garlic and butter. Straw hats hang from the ceiling and maps of the Bay adorn the walls. Windows offers picturesque views of the water. At a table, a lively and animated group shares a meal. Conversation flows as platters of fried pickles are passed around, eagerly dipped into tangy ranch dressing. However, there is something extraordinary about this gathering. Despite the vibrant discussions and frequent bursts of laughter, not a single word is spoken. Welcome to a silent
dinner at the Bluegill.

These unique dinners are sponsored by the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind (AIDB), where all attendees communicate through American Sign Language (ASL). The AIDB provides comprehensive support to individuals of all ages, birth to senior citizens, who are deaf, hard-of-hearing, blind or visually impaired, with silent dinners being just one of their many invaluable services. These gatherings, often attended by 30 to 40 participants of all ages, bring together longtime members of the deaf community and ASL students who are still mastering sign language. Inclusivity reigns supreme, as individuals from all walks of life are welcome. However, there is one rule: “If you speak, you have to buy dinner,” laughs Alex Tenney, an ASL instructor.

These dinners have immense value for members of the deaf community, as they offer an opportunity to socialize without the barriers that often hinder communication with the hearing population in their daily lives. “Hearing people can easily strike up conversations with cashiers at a grocery store. For deaf individuals, it is not always that simple,” explains Tenney. Tatum Kentli “TK” Prince, a four-year-old who was born deaf but recently received a cochlear implant, relied on sign language as her primary means of communication. “My children love meeting others in the deaf community and are excited to sign with them,” says TK’s mother, Susan, who is hearing. “Deaf events are our family’s favorite occasions. TK’s face lights up when she finds herself surrounded by others who speak her native language.” Tenney adds that, for some children, meeting a fellow deaf person for the first time can be a profoundly transformative experience. “TK is a social butterfly who refuses to let her differences or language barrier hold her back,” says Prince.

Left to right Daniel Wilson and Bethany Miller, ASL instructor and deaf mentor. Alex Tenney, job developer and ASL instructor with TK Prince.

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Silent dinners and other deaf events are also opportunities for people to get to know each other on a social level and receive their deaf names. Also called sign names, deaf names are given to members of the deaf community based on a person’s characteristics, personality traits or physical features. Based on consultation between the individual and the community at large a sign name is created to represent the person in a concise and visually distinctive way.

The dinners benefit not only the deaf community but also ASL students. The motivations for enrolling in ASL classes are diverse, ranging from parents of deaf children, like Susan, to professionals such as nurses, police officers and teachers who seek effective communication with deaf individuals they encounter in their respective fields. Some students may have begun experiencing hearing loss themselves and wish to learn ASL as an alternative means of communication. Others pursue ASL courses for personal growth and enrichment. “The experience was very enjoyable, and it introduced us to interesting people outside our normal circle,” says Reggie Ardis, a police officer who took the class alongside his wife. And while he hasn’t had to opportunity to use ASL in his professional setting, he says, “I’m very glad I took the basic class and both my wife, and I intend to continue with an advanced class.”

Left TK Prince, age four, shares the sign for “I love you.” Right ASL Instructor and Deaf Mentor Bethany Miller.

For ASL students, the silent dinners serve as the culmination of their studies, providing them with a supportive environment to practice their skills. Additionally, it offers them the unique opportunity to step into the shoes of a deaf individual for a day, including engaging with waitstaff and placing orders without speaking. “The goal of a silent dinner is to demonstrate how challenging a common social event such as mealtime can be for deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals in a hearing setting, especially if they are lip reading,” says deaf mentor and ASL instructor Bethany Miller. “People talk with their mouths full or cover their faces. Many individuals have difficulty with lipreading and rely on ASL only.” 

This welcoming and inclusive community creates a supportive environment for students to learn. “The first time I went to a silent dinner, it was just TK and myself. I was very nervous with the limited language I had, but it was the best time. Everyone was welcoming and encouraging of me,” says Prince. “We have a large family with five children, and they have come with us to other silent dinners. They are a fantastic way to connect the hearing and deaf communities.”

September is Deaf Awareness Month, and the Alabama Institute for the Blind and Deaf will be hosting DeaFestival on September 23 from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. at OWA. This free event is open to all, and will feature food, entertainment and booths. 

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