Having the ability to hear is something most people take for granted, but not Lily Bess, a USF American Sign Language professor. For Bess, the loss of her hearing has made her who she is today and instilled in her a passion to teach others the importance of sign language.
Bess has been a professor at USF for nine years. Before coming to USF, she worked for 17 years as director of the Virginia Department of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
Bess also had her own television show on NBC, Speaking With Your Hands, on which she taught sign language in the fall of 1974. It ran for four years thereafter.
Her television show on NBC was nominated for an Emmy Award in 1975 and for a Peabody Award in 1976. Although she did not win those awards, she was pleased to have been nominated.
“For those two awards that I didn’t win, I was really happy for being honored for those nominations. It felt like I won the recognition for the show, so it’s almost like winning the award itself,” Bess said.
The show won an award from International Educational Television Programming in 1976. Bess then became the vice president of the National Captioning Institute in Washington D.C.
“I worked in the political section, (promoting) close-captioning and (lobbying) for continual federal funding to support captioning,” Bess said.
She was also one of the few key people who pushed for the federal law to require all television sets 13 inches or larger to be equipped with a captioning chip. This law provides an equal opportunity for deaf people to enjoy television programs.
Bess has not been able to hear since she was three years old, but that hasn’t stopped her from living a full life.
She lost her hearing when she became ill with a high fever.
“Back in World War II they didn’t have any advanced medicine like penicillin. It wasn’t used,” Bess said.
Since then, she has been deaf but still able to talk because she wasn’t born deaf.
Her parents were told never to learn sign language. The doctor insisted that if they learned sign language their daughter would lose the ability to talk. This hindered her relationship with her parents because she could not understand them fully through lip reading during a large portion of her life.
“Ninety percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents, and less than 1 percent of the parents can communicate in sign language with their child,” Bess said.
Unfortunately, she was not part of that 1 percent.
As Bess grew up, she desired to improve her communication skills. She decided to attend Gallaudet University, a college for the deaf in Washington, D.C., and learned ASL for the first time. She went on to attend graduate school at NYU and received a master’s in deaf education.
It was in New York that the silence in Bess and her parents’ relationship was broken. Her mother flew up from Virginia to New York for Christmas one year, and when she got off the plane her mother signed something to her.
“She took sign language to surprise me. It was the first time I saw her sign to me. I was in my thirties when we could finally communicate in-depth with each other,” Bess said.
Bess said they made sure to catch up on the 30-plus years they missed not being able to communicate.
The “manual alphabet” is probably the best thing to learn because it is easy to remember, Bess said. The manual alphabet is spelling out words using sign language motions representing letters. It is something that can be used in drastic measures.
“A week before Christmas this past year, my mother got pneumonia, and I was flown home to Virginia to be with her,” Bess said.
When she arrived Bess found her mother was unable to talk because of the trachea tube inserted in her throat. She was unable to communicate with anyone.
When her mother was near to death, she used the manual alphabet to finger spell her goodbye to her daughter.
“Don’t be sad my sweet angel. I will take your love with me and hold on to it always,” Bess’ mother signed.
“They were the sweetest and most loving words my eyes have ever beheld, and I will always cherish this memory of my mother,” Bess said.
“The point of this story is that I feel that every human being should learn the manual alphabet at the least. For two reasons: if you can’t communicate when you are sick or going to die, you should be able to say something or sign something, especially for those who have deaf children.”
Bess said sign language can be useful to a person who has been injured in a car accident or has had a mild stroke. Communication still would be possible through sign language.
“ASL is a vital language of deaf people, and it is the sole means of communication for more than 2.5 million deaf people in the United States,” Bess said.
Bess’ hearing students have grown to appreciate communication and those who have had to overcome obstacles to express their thoughts and feelings.
“It’s amazing to learn how the deaf have to adjust. Some of the stories are so terrible, but inspirational,” said Stephany Stoddart, an ASL student.
ASL student Denise Santana has also grown to appreciate different ways of communicating.
“(ASL) is a beautiful language with its own unique rules, and it allows you to express yourself by using your hands, facial expressions and much more,”she said.
Communication, for Bess, means using her hands. But she also has different devices in her house to help her through the day. For instance, the doorbell is hooked up to lights to give her a visual cue when someone is at the door.
She also has a telephone with a relay service, called TTY, that resembles a miniature computer.
“The operator relays my conversation and types it on the screen of the telephone,” Bess said.
Bess has been involved in the deaf community most of her life. She was elected Deaf Woman of the Year four times in Virginia by Quota International, an organization that emphasizes service to deaf, hard-of-hearing and speech-impaired individuals and disadvantaged women and children. She was also named Professional Woman of the Year by Pilot Club International, a worldwide service organization.
Through her teaching and example, her students come to appreciate more than a language, but a way of life.
“Lily is a wonderful teacher who has given her students a glimpse into her life. She has taught me that even though we may view her world as a life full of silence, it is actually much more complete and happy than we imagine even without the sounds of every day that all of us take for granted,” said Santana.
Bess is writing a book, and her tentative title is You’re Not Listening … I Can’t Hear. It is a storybook about a deaf woman as she struggles in the hearing world, Bess explained.
For more info — Every first and third Friday of the month from 7-11 p.m., Bess attends a social gathering at the Starbucks on Fletcher Avenue. Students who want to learn more about sign language are always welcome to attend.