As someone who was born with the ability to hear and develop speech patterns with ease, communicating with the people in my life was almost always an afterthought. It wasn’t until I regularly spent time interacting with a deaf cafeteria worker during my freshman year of college that I realized I was unable to communicate with an entire portion of my community, simply because of my own deliberate choice—or rather, lack thereof.

I had never learned the basics of American Sign Language.

An estimated 11.5 million Americans have some degree of hearing challenges, according to most recent census data compiled by the Colorado Commission for the Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and DeafBlind (CCDHH), with more than 755,000 Coloradans categorized as being deaf or hard of hearing (HoH). Despite this, the same CCDHH study estimates that there are only about 755,000 people across the United States signing American Sign Language (ASL) to various levels of fluency.

Teaching myself via YouTube how to sign “thank you” to that deaf cafeteria worker felt like the absolute bare minimum. But to me, those statistics were far too stark to continue living in the blissful ignorance of the hearing world. I wanted to do more. The Deaf community deserved more from hearing people like myself.

Now, as a recent Denver transplant (and a broke 25-year-old without hundreds of dollars to invest in ASL classes), I was glad to see I’m not alone. Thanks to the Google gods, I stumbled upon ASL Social Happy Hour: a social-shindig-meets-language-class founded by local ASL interpreter Lyndsey Gibbons and Jay Flanery in September, held (typically) every other Wednesday evening at RiNo winery and taproom Infinite Monkey Theorem. The biweekly affair is donation-based and requires no prior ASL experience (with happy hour wine prices as a nice added bonus).

Earlier in 2022, Gibbons reconnected with an old friend, Nicki McTague, who also happens to be the Infinite Monkey Theorem CEO, and the two Colorado-natives collaborated to make the event a reality.

“I always wanted the winery to be more than a place to drink wine. I want it to be a place where all people feel welcome and seen,” says McTague. “Working with Lyndsey Gibbons and the ASL Social Happy Hour group has given us yet another opportunity to open the winery and educate people on a topic they may not be familiar with. Doing it with a glass of wine in a fun and non-intimidating environment is just icing on the cake.”

Gibbons, who took her first ASL class in college, has now been signing for over half her life and has worked as an interpreter for almost 12 years. Gibbons says she was already passionate about ASL and the Deaf community prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but after watching her friends struggle even more than usual because of social barriers such as face masks, she was all the more inspired to encourage hearing Denverites to learn the language she quickly grew to love.

“I was like, ‘I want to do something to make a difference and just give a platform for a safe space,’ ” Gibbons recalls.

Gibbons co-hosts the happy hour with Jay Flanery, who also works full-time as an interpreter at WellPower in Denver, and ASL model Tom Ansell, who was born deaf.

“The most important thing is that it’s a Deaf person that is actually teaching the signs [because] ASL is not my native language. When the participants have questions, we always go to our Deaf friends,” says Gibbons. “Tom is my go-to dictionary when it comes to ASL and language because [he’s] so bilingual.”

Ansell first began school in his home state of Massachusetts at the Learning Center for the Deaf (TLC), where he relied on ASL as his primary language. Beginning in middle school, however, his parents made the decision to transfer him to a mainstream public school for a better education.

“Since seventh grade, I was with all hearing kids, and I had an interpreter for all the classes with me. It was such a change for me, and I wasn’t used to that because no one really knew sign [language],” Ansell says through an ASL interpreter, who recalls being one of 20 deaf students in the school of about 4,500. “As I was growing up, I learned Deaf culture and all of that because of that first experience, but then I also interact and live in a hearing world, so I live in both worlds: a hearing and a Deaf world.”

Ansell points out that while it’s important to raise awareness of the existing Deaf and HoH community, it’s also likely that many hearing people will experience some level of hearing loss in their future.

“If they’re already being proactive, and they’ve already learned at least some basic sign language, then that will benefit them. There are millions of Americans that have hearing losses,” signs Ansell. “ASL would be such a benefit, and it really is a benefit to everyone instead of having to struggle so much. Also, the Deaf community is amazing.”

Because Gibbons herself felt so welcomed by the Deaf community, she wants to extend the same experience to newcomers and make each happy hour class welcoming and accessible to everyone. Each two-hour session, which draws around 20 guests of all backgrounds, deaf and hearing alike, begins with introductions and games or other icebreakers before diving into learning new words and phrases in ASL.

For some events, like the Halloween-themed class I first attended, everyone remained in one group—people of all experience levels learning together. At other classes, however, the more experienced signers are invited to turn their “voices off” and engage in conversation with each other, while the less experienced participants practice fingerspelling and are taught common signs by Ansell and the co-hosts. Discussions are based on relevant topics, such as pronouns, question words, or more recently, holiday-related words and phrases. (Yes, I have now added “Frankenstein” and “turkey” to my personal repertoire.)

A woman and man smiling, dressed in halloween costumes, holding up prizes.
Olivia Thomas and Tom Ansell at a Halloween-themed ASL Social Happy Hour event in October. Photo courtesy of Lyndsey Gibbons

Olivia Thomas, a representative payee investigator at Disability Law Colorado, took ASL classes throughout high school and has continued to grow her knowledge of the language over the years. When she happened to meet Gibbons at a separate event and noticed her signing, Thomas immediately responded in ASL, and the two kept in touch. Now, Thomas is a regular ASL Happy Hour attendee.

“Environments like this are really conducive to learning sign [language] for people of all levels,” Thomas says. “I think it’s important for hearing people to make the effort to learn sign language because there’s a bigger Deaf population and hard-of-hearing population [than you realize], and it’s just like any other language… you would want to learn Spanish because we do have a large Spanish-speaking population here. [If you’re nervous,] come anyway because everyone has to start somewhere.”

Ansell shares similar advice, stressing that he’s never offended when hearing signers accidentally sign the wrong sign. He politely explains the correct sign and moves on with the conversation, encouraging the newbies to keep learning.

“Just jump in. Make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and don’t put too [many] expectations on yourself. Just be true and authentic,” Ansell says through an interpreter. “[There’s no benefit to] feeling down upon yourself. It’s a long journey to learn something, so you’re not going to do it all on the first day. But start small and keep progressing every day.”

The final two ASL Social Happy Hour events of the year will take place on Tuesday, December 13 and Wednesday, December 28 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Infinite Monkey Theorem (most likely in the back barrel room). After the holidays, the ASL Social Happy Hour event plans to return to its regular biweekly Wednesday night schedule. For more information, visit Infinite Monkey Theorem’s event calendar